Decentralised energy schemes
The option for most rural poor
Access to energy is as a critical element for human development. Institutions such as the EU, UN, World Bank believe that energy is essential to promote or improve a range of basic services, such as lighting, drinking water, health centres, schools and communications. There is also a common understanding that most of the Millennium Development Goals can be met only if appropriate access to such services can be reached first. Therefore the challenge to provide modern energy services to the majority of the poor in the world is huge. 1.3 billion people in the developing world have no access to electricity and progress in this field is very slow - almost 80% of the African population use wood fuel and charcoal for cooking.
Regarding electricity, research on rural electrification suggests that rural people only need small amounts of energy to improve their quality of life and their income. In most cases, electricity is necessary for the provision of lighting and community services such as education and health. Activities for transforming or preserving products (such as milling grain, chilling milk or making ice) are performed at a very small scale, thus requiring low amounts of energy.
There is evidence that in rural areas in developing countries, electricity consumption rarely exceeds 30-50 kWh per month. Practical Action's experience in the implementation of rural energy services in several countries shows that in isolated rural communities most families require tiny amounts of energy, for example in the Andes about 60% of the families barely exceed 30 kWh per month per household; in Nepal in many isolated communities the supply of 50W to 100W is sufficient to cope with family needs. Also an important factor affecting demand for electricity in rural areas is the dispersion of consumers as well as the subsistence production activities they undertake. Therefore not only are energy requirements for economic production very small, but distances reduce their incentive to take their products to market, thereby their energy needs low.
Rural energy options
In the past electricity used to be supplied from small-scale generation plants. However, rapid urbanization, industrial development, the rapid development of technologies for electricity generation and economies of scale, have determined that the world's electricity needs be now supplied through large grids; unfortunately most rural people cannot access these grids, and their only alternative is small stand-alone energy schemes.
Appropriate options include renewable energy schemes: solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, small-scale wind electricity generators, small-scale hydro schemes and biomass systems. They are considered appropriate because they use local resources, can be sized according to need, operated and managed locally, and because local people can participate in the processes of planning and installation. Diesel sets have been frequently used for applications of this kind and can still be useful, under particular conditions of reliability and affordability. However this option is generally limited to few hours of supply because of the high cost of diesel fuel.
Despite their high cost in most cases, renewable energy technologies have progressed significantly. Nevertheless such progress have been mostly in developed countries, were there have been experimenting a fast grown of solar PV and wind systems, but in developing countries it is slow. Among the most remarkable examples of implementation of decentralised renewable energies are: 150,000 in Kenya, 100,000 in China, 85,000 in Zimbabwe, 60,000 in Indonesia and 40,000 in Mexico; around 150,000 PV and wind systems for health clinics, schools and other communal buildings world-wide. Over 45,000 small-scale hydro schemes are operational in China, providing electricity to more than 50 million people. Over 100,000 families in Vietnam use very small water turbines to generate electricity from hydro schemes, while more than 50,000 small-scale wind turbines provide electricity in remote rural areas in the world.
Rural energy barriers
Despite the small demands of electricity in rural areas, as said above the challenges to access to modern energy services to all are huge. In fact for those involved in the provision of energy services to the rural poor it is clear that the lack of money is not the only constraint for the poor countries, but there are important barriers which prevent the increase of access to modern energy services; all of the associated with social, technical, managerial and institutional issues.
Practical Action has been working consistently for more than 30 years in the field of energy, to contribute to the elimination of such barriers. This work has been done in association with the users and other different stakeholders. Among the most important activities are:
- technology development, technology transfer and pilot projects to reduce costs of small decentralised energy schemes;
- development and implementation of appropriate management models of organisation considering social and cultural particularities of the users;
- financial schemes with public and private partnership providing revolving funds to rural villages, communities and entrepreneurs to implement their own energy schemes;
- policy and advocacy activities (pro-poor and pro-decentralised energy) in Africa, Asia and Latin America;
- efficient and rational use of energy to create income generation and jobs;
- other activities contribution to the sustainability and dissemination of appropriate energy technologies.
A version of this paper was presented to 'Small is beautiful': making decentralised energy a reality, at the Commission for Sustainable Development, 8 May 2006, New York