Rural energy access today presents a mixed picture. Technological advancements offer new options to connect remote communities. Yet still, too many remain without a reliable source of power. This impacts local health, wellbeing, and opportunities for growth. Improving rural energy access is possible, but not all initiatives bear equal results. Only by choosing the right energy source, applications, and approach can we unlock the full potential of rural communities.
Rural Energy Access Today
Worldwide, nearly 1 billion people lack access to electricity, roughly 87% of whom live in rural areas. Most of these people live in Sub-Saharan Africa, but rural energy poverty is a global problem.
Rural areas are less likely to be connected to the electric grid. Where the grid is lacking, people must search for alternatives, or otherwise live in darkness. Often, households turn to dangerous and polluting fuels, such as kerosene to light their homes and charcoal to cook their food.
Rural energy access has seen some progress in recent decades. Governments have worked to expand electric grids beyond urban centers. But grid extensions remain costly and often fail to deliver a sufficient supply of electricity to rural consumers. Technological advancements offer reliable options for off-grid energy, even in the most remote areas, yet more attention and funding are needed to deploy these solutions.
Impacts of Rural Energy Poverty
Without energy, lighting homes, cooking food, and completing other basic tasks isn’t possible. And relying on fuels like kerosene is neither safe nor sustainable nor sufficient for meeting diverse human needs. Only through modern energy—especially electricity—can we live, thrive, and pursue higher opportunities.
Energy poverty, characterized by the lack of safe, reliable energy access, exists everywhere. But rural energy poverty holds unique consequences. In this context, not only do households lack energy, but important institutions may too. When health clinics lack electricity, care is limited. When schools lack electricity, classrooms are dark and disconnected. When communities lack electricity, clean water and sanitation services are non-existent.
This is the status of rural energy access for hundreds of millions of people. Survival becomes a full-time job. Economic growth becomes a dream. And people are locked into a vicious cycle that only energy can break.
Rural Energy Access Challenges
Several challenges stand in the way of improved rural energy access. Historically, energy access has hinged on extending the electric grid outward from urban centers. But this often isn’t profitable. Connecting a rural community requires laying transmission lines over what can be dozens or even hundreds of miles. The energy consumed by the small population at the end of the line typically isn’t enough for the utility to turn a profit.
Governments may support grid extensions. However, countries with the lowest levels of rural energy access tend to also lack the financial standing to attract lenders. International agencies offer assistance, but the need is always greater.
The good news: grid extensions are no longer the only option. Microgrids and standalone systems present an increasingly cost-effective and reliable alternative for energy access issues.
Rural Energy Access Solutions
Energy comes in many forms, but improving electricity access, specifically, is key to eradicating rural energy poverty. Where the centralized systems, like traditional power grids, fail to meet rural needs, decentralized systems can step in. These systems produce power on the spot and can operate independently of the larger grid.
Solar electric systems, including photovoltaics (PV), are a primary example of decentralized energy. While solar panels can feed electricity into a centralized grid, they can also send it directly to where it’s needed—whether that’s a home, a health clinic, or another piece of infrastructure.
Decentralized PV systems come in two forms: standalone systems and microgrids.
Standalone systems capture solar energy for one designated end-use. Solar water pumps are one example, in which a solar array captures energy, converts it to electricity, and feeds it directly to the pump. Standalone systems like these help meet specific needs, regardless of the presence or absence of other energy infrastructure.
Standalone systems extend beyond solar electricity, too. Solar thermal applications convert sunlight directly into heat energy on a standalone basis. Solar ovens are one example of this technology at work, in which thermal energy is used to cook food, no electricity required.
Microgrids function similarly to the larger electric grid system. Energy is produced in one location and delivered to various end-uses. This can include homes, businesses, public infrastructure, and more. The key difference: A microgrid produces energy on a smaller scale and closer to the consumer, making it a more pragmatic and affordable option for rural communities. Microgrids can be installed high in the mountains or deep in the jungle, and still offer a reliable source of electricity.
Together, standalone systems and microgrids greatly expand rural energy access options. Rural residents no longer need to hang their hopes on grid extensions. They can step right into the clean energy future.
Planning for Success
Improving rural energy access requires matching the right systems to the right context. The best approach considers the specific needs of the community. Diverse stakeholders should be engaged, and diverse voices should be heard, to inform the best result.
Successful rural energy initiatives also involve long-term planning. How will the systems be maintained and, if needed, repaired? If the community is growing, will the system’s capacity be sufficient for the next generation? Considering these questions upfront ensures success long-term.
Done right, these projects allow rural residents to stay in place. With well-lit homes, clean drinking water, quality education, and more, rural people can meet their needs locally. They are no longer forced into cities in pursuit of basic goods and services. They can work, live, and play alongside their urban counterparts, while staying on their ancestral lands.
The Future of Rural Energy Access
Rural areas can get their energy from a variety of sources, but the best source of energy is ample, reliable, safe, and affordable. An energy source should be capable of meeting diverse needs, without compromising on environmental standards.
Solar energy is a particularly promising solution to rural energy access issues. It is clean, increasingly affordable, and can be more reliable than a traditional power grid. Market trends confirm the upward trajectory of solar. The International Energy Agency projects that global PV capacity will nearly triple over the 2022-2027 period, becoming the world’s largest source of power. The challenge now is ensuring equitable access for rural people everywhere.
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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