Roughly one billion people live without access to electricity today, the vast majority in rural villages. This limits nearly every aspect of human health and wellbeing. From improving food security to advancing medical care, the benefits of electrification are vast. But what does it take to electrify a village?
Successful village electrification projects consider community priorities, geographic constraints, environmental sustainability, and long-term needs. Done right, electrification creates entirely new paths to prosperity.
Understanding Village Needs
The first step for any village electrification initiative is assessing a village’s practical needs. Common elements exist across these rural communities. For example, villages will typically have homes in need of power. On a community scale, villages may need electricity for water pumping and distribution, agriculture and food systems, streetlighting, and community buildings such as schools and health clinics.
There may also be specific needs. For example, plans to electrify a village for the Indigenous Arhuaco people in Colombia included power for a cultural learning center and a coffee enterprise at the community’s request.
And it’s not just what the electricity will power, but also how much. Large villages need more power capacity than small villages. Ideal capacity depends on the population size and growth trends.
Challenges with the Electric Grid
Traditionally, villages have relied on grid extensions for electrification. This can require laying transmission lines over dozens, or even hundreds, of miles simply to connect to the existing grid. According to a GTM Research-Power for All study, the cost of grid extensions in sub-Saharan Africa averages over $1 million per megawatt/kilometer. The farther a village is from an urban center, the more expensive electrification becomes. And because most villages have a small customer base, energy companies see little incentive for providing services.
Topography also impedes grid extensions. Difficult terrain, such as mountain ranges, adds financial and logistical hurdles. Fragile habitat further complicates the picture, as extensions disrupt local flora and fauna.
These factors have historically prevented rural villages from accessing electricity. Fortunately, the grid is no longer the only option.
How to Electrify a Village—Without the Grid
Distributed energy resources (DER) offer a solution for village electrification. DER encompasses various types of small-scale, on-the-spot energy generation and storage technologies that operate independently of the electric grid. As a result, they can provide a reliable source of power from virtually anywhere.
Solar microgrids are a common type of DER. A microgrid functions like an electric grid but on a much smaller scale. A solar array is installed, typically within or just outside the village. The array captures energy from the sun, and smart meters help direct that energy to homes, businesses, and anywhere else it’s needed. Solar microgrids are modular, meaning extra panels can be added over time. These systems can even incorporate other power sources, such as wind energy, diesel generators, or the national electric grid if it’s eventually extended.
On its own, a microgrid can electrify a village. But standalone solar applications may also be used. Standalone applications directly link an energy source with a singular, designated purpose. For example, a streetlight may have its own built-in solar panel, rather than relying on a nearby microgrid for power. These applications are especially useful for meeting electrification needs outside the village center.
Both standalone systems and microgrids generate energy close to where it’s used. This allows for a community owned and operated model—and more affordable, reliable energy.
Sustainable Sources for Village Power
Renewable systems like solar microgrids empower people and protect the planet. Rural communities are among those most affected by climate change. Limited resources provide little means of adaptation. And a more direct dependence on the surrounding environment puts both lives and livelihoods at risk.
Electrifying a village with fossil fuels may provide short-term relief. But it comes at a long-term cost. Relying on things like diesel generators will only worsen climate change. Meanwhile, villagers are caught in a cycle of consistently purchasing fuel and spare parts. By drawing on renewable energy instead, communities gain access to clean, reliable, and increasingly affordable power. This energy can help them adapt to climate change, mitigate emissions, and serve as a model for a greener, brighter future.
Electrifying for the Future
Sustainability goes beyond environmental concerns. Electrifying a village successfully also requires planning for the social and financial sustainability of the project.
From the beginning, local engagement is crucial. This helps ensure the systems suit community needs and provide value over time. Systems like solar microgrids require little maintenance, especially with smart design and high-quality products. But eventually, batteries and other components may need to be replaced. The physical parts can be budgeted for in advance. And trainings can equip local people with the knowledge and resources to maintain their systems. Strong partnerships and diverse stakeholders enhance these efforts.
Case Study: The Whole Village Development Model
A project in Nigeria offers an early model for village electrification. The village of Wawan Rafi, located in rural Jigawa State, had struggled to improve local health, education, and commercial development without access to electricity. In 2001, the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) launched its Whole Village Development Model in the community—putting solar power to the test.
Infrastructure such as water pumping and streetlighting were installed. Community buildings including schools and health clinics were electrified. A micro-enterprise center was established, providing a space for vendors to utilize electricity and expand their businesses. Each of these resources was powered with standalone systems. Today, due to technological advancements, a microgrid could also be used, or a combination of both.
Two decades later, these electric systems continue to serve the people of Wawan Rafi, fueling a healthier, more prosperous community. The Whole Village Development Model has since been replicated around the world to reach even more people.
Despite significant progress, countless villages remain in the dark. Without electricity, breaking the cycle of poverty is nearly impossible. And without sustainable sources, the climate crisis will continue to intensify.
There’s no single roadmap to electrify a village. But there are important steps all initiatives should take. Today, we have the tools to bring reliable, clean energy to the most remote communities. With the right approach, we can electrify the world’s villages and change lives forever.
SELF is a global leader in the fight against energy poverty. Since 1990, we’ve pioneered unique applications for solar energy, powering progress on food security, health care, education, gender equity, and more.
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