Africa needs more than a one-size-fits-all energy solution

Imagine yourself as one of the 620 million people in Africa living day to day in the dark next to a toxic, dim kerosene lantern.  You realize a sense of urgency to improve your family’s situation with an openness towards reliable solutions.  Resolving energy poverty for families in Africa and across the globe where collectively over a Billion people live with no access to modern energy services means a better and more stable world for everyone. However, examining the solutions to energy poverty seems to be stuck in gridlock - which is to say, focus is stuck on the grid.

The recent bipartisan lead “Electrify Africa Act” solidified the role of the United States to both develop Africa’s energy market and help bring electricity access to the hundreds of millions of people living in energy poverty.  Coinciding with the Act, Power Africa released their Roadmap outlining U.S. energy ambitions, including 40 percent of new connections coming from Beyond the Grid.  This step signals we have made progress out of a unilateral understanding that energy only comes from a centralized source. 

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The International Energy Agency, the most cited authority on global energy, seconds this stance indicating that 60 percent of African homes will be served through distributed renewable solutions, a population which today is 370 million people or more than the entire United States. As we work towards resolving energy poverty we must embrace a hard-and- fast approach to apply diversified energy solutions that make sense according to context – this isn’t a “one-size fits all” problem. 

For example, an average rural family in Kenya allocates 30 percent of annual income towards securing a new grid connection, and others will never see it regardless of how badly they ask. This suggests we need to check our prejudice for how an energy poor household gets service.  All of us perform practical, situation-based analysis every day, like when deciding our mode of transportation. It’s time we realize that energy is no different.    

Energy solutions and transportation have a lot of similarities.  We use a variety of solutions in varying contexts to arrive at our destinations.  I appreciate energy services from the grid just as much as I appreciate riding the subway in New York City – it’s cheap, its efficient and some might argue it’s the best service in town.  But if someone asked me to go to Ngarenanyuki, a last mile village in Tanzania, I’d likely sit on the back of a motor bike taxi to get there– not ride the subway.  Never mind that it’s too expensive to build the subway to Ngarenanyuki and there are not enough customers traveling there to make the service remotely sustainable – let alone profitable; it just doesn’t make sense.  No one in Ngarenanyuki is waiting for the subway. 

Yet when we look at much of the current thinking and discussion to bring modern energy services into the homes of billions of people in villages like Ngarenanyuki , many still resemble building subways where as people instead need something that makes sense. Energy poor families need a fast, cheap and reliable service delivery like a motor-bike. Something that meets the energy demand today, not decades from now.

Distributed Renewable Energy solutions ranging from solar lanterns, home systems and mini-grids are the energy access equivalent of the motor bike – they are fast, cheap and reliable solutions that makes sense today, tomorrow and for possibly decades to come. Sitting around waiting for the grid could see a couple more generations grow up and go by in the dark – still many may never see it.  And yes, distributed energy solutions all provide “real electricity” at introductory levels like clean lighting, cell phone charging and power to basic appliances like radios and televisions, all of which provide huge gains economically and to quality of life that are reflected in measures of human development index.  

The challenge to develop Africa’s energy market and bring modern electricity access to the continent is immense. It constitutes an all hand on deck seriousness where solutions are aligned to the right contexts.  This means central grid investments, increasing sustainable production and connecting households where possible. Where the grid is not feasible it means a range of distributed energy solutions that provide high-quality, high value service.

When we have distributed solutions to power the needs of communities that otherwise won’t have anything, we need to apply the same mature analysis we use when comparing efficient modes of transportation.  We need to get out of grid-lock, get out from a one-size fits all mentally and embrace a steadfast approach that includes the range of distributed energy solutions.  Billions of people are counting on it.   

Tomlinson is an entrepreneur, author, researcher and expert in energy access.  He is a 2012 Echoing Green Fellow and has been working with entrepreneurs and advising government and development agencies on energy access, poverty and development for the past seven years.

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