The Cooperative Society Newsletter
September 2018, Issue 11
by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D.
A little over a billion people have no access to electricity. That’s 1/7th of the world’s population. There are hundreds of millions more whose energy is unreliable, dirty, unhealthy, inadequate, unsustainable, and/or expensive – for example, kerosene, diesel, wood, and candles.
At the same time, almost every country in the world has made a commitment through the United Nations Paris Agreement to significantly cut back by 2030 on their use of energy sources that emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (Note that the Trump administration is planning to withdraw the United States from the agreement in January 2020.)
On top of all that, these same countries have made commitments through the UN’s Sustainable Development Program to dramatically improve the quality of life around the world by 2030. One of the Program’s goals is to, “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”
There are many ways in which universal access to electricity will improve the quality of people’s lives; for example, creating job opportunities, reducing the workload of women by saving on average an hour a day that is currently spent searching for firewood, and preventing almost 2-million premature deaths per year from household air pollution. There would also be a net reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions because of lower use of biomass fuel for cooking, and the virtual elimination of kerosene and other dirty fuels as sources of heat and light.
How can these divergent problems and goals be reconciled?
The broad answer is to dramatically increase the use of renewable energy to meet the world’s unmet and under-met needs for electricity. This article provides a brief overview of recent changes in electrical access and outlines a path toward universal electrification by 2030 with a focus on community-based solar energy.
Recent and projected progress in electrification
There has been a pattern since 2000 of accelerating access to electricity for unserved and underserved populations. Data from the World Energy Outlook 2017 Special Report indicate that in 2000, there were about 1.7 billion people without access to electricity. This number dropped to 1.1 billion in 2016. The “vast majority (97%) of new electricity connections” has been provided through primarily fossil-fuel-based grid extensions. Less than 1% of new electricity access has been via decentralized systems.
The report goes on to say that between now and 2030, fossil fuels will largely be replaced by renewable energy – especially solar energy – as the primary source for new electricity connections. “The rapidly declining costs of solar PV [photovoltaics], battery technologies, and energy-efficient appliances (especially light-emitting diode [LED] lighting) are making decentralized renewable energy systems more affordable. This is particularly the case for rural and dispersed communities not served by a main grid and where it may take years for one to arrive. Decentralized systems can also be attractive in areas with grid access but an unreliable power supply.”
Growth of solar and other renewable sources of electrification
There are a number of exciting, renewable-energy options that are beginning to electrify the world. For example, large solar arrays are being developed across northern Africa that could eventually replace much of the fossil-fuel energy of Europe. One analyst estimates that putting solar panels on 2% of the Sahara Desert could meet all of the world’s electricity needs.
Building underwater transmission cables from the Sahara to Europe is quite feasible. The same is not true for transmission to the Americas. There are other examples of desert-based large-scale solar projects in Saudi Arabia, China, the Navajo reservation in the United States, and elsewhere. Together, these systems are likely to provide a huge addition to affordable, renewable energy by 2030.
And, we can’t forget about wind. Wind turbines are still cheaper than solar panels in many situations and will continue to be a critical part of any future mix of renewable-energy sources.
Both solar and wind must be supplemented by other sources of energy and energy storage systems. Lithium ion batteries and other means of storage are an important and increasingly cost-effective way to expand the use of renewable energy at every level, from individual buildings to large power plants.
Community-based solar energy
Many of the billion-plus people who don’t have access to electricity live in fairly remote areas that are not easily connected to major power grids. As a result, large-scale renewable options don’t apply to them and are not likely to in the near future because of the high cost of transmission lines.
Households and businesses, and clusters of electrical consumers at the village level, can be most economically and efficiently served by electricity generated right at the community level.
In projecting future expansion of access to electricity, the World Energy Outlook Report lays out an “energy-for-all” scenario, which is based on the goal of universal electrification by 2030.
Figuring in population growth, this would mean expanding electrical coverage to 1.3 billion additional people at an approximate cost of almost $800 billion. The report concludes that over 50% of this electricity would be powered by solar energy, and less than 25% by fossil fuels. Furthermore, more than 60% of new electrical energy will be generated by mini-grid and off-grid systems. (For the most part, “off-grid” systems power individual homes and other buildings.)
Below are four examples that include community-based solar components, followed by a discussion of how community solar could be expanded and made more efficient so that many millions more people around the world could benefit from renewable, reliable, and locally controlled electricity.
The newly formed Totota Co-op in rural Liberia has just begun operating a community solar co-op. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and Bandera Electric Co-op, one of NRECA’s member cooperatives in the United States, assisted the village to organize the co-op and install solar panels, a battery-storage unit, and other equipment. NRECA is working with 12 Liberian coastal villages to expand the community solar model to them.
When Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India in 2014, 300 million households were without electricity. Every village in India now has electricity, but there are still 30 million households without it. President Modi promises to electrify all of these remaining households by April 2019 through a combination of hooking them up to the national grid and through mini-grid and off-grid installations. Many communities have formed Village Electric Committees to oversee the operation of their solar facilities. According to one observer, “most Indian solar microgrids are democratic, with power controlled by village committees.”
Islands, big and small, face special challenges in meeting their electrical service needs. Most don’t have local sources of energy, although some use wood, other kinds of biomass, hydroelectric, and geothermal energy. Importing fuel, such as diesel, is expensive and polluting. Many islands are also vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes that play havoc with transmission lines and other components of the electrical system. Consider the damage that Hurricane Maria caused in Puerto Rico last year, including the estimated loss of about 3,000 lives, and from which the island is still recovering.
Forty island countries and other territories in the Caribbean formed the $1-billion Caribbean Climate-Smart Accelerator in August 2018 to create more self-sufficient and resilient energy systems.
The Sahel Region of Africa
Along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert is a huge savanna region called the Sahel. At over 1,000,000 mi.², it is one-third the size of the Sahara.
“The Desert to Power Program . . . seeks to make use of this massive swathe of territory to develop 10,000 megawatts (MW) worth of solar energy to provide electricity to 250 million people — including for 90 million off-grid.”
Here are some strengths of the community-based solar model:
- Relatively inexpensive
- Can have its own microgrid, independent of a large-scale transmission grid
- Easy to transport, install, and maintain
- Costs can be based on usage
- Decision-making can be through cooperative or other locally elected boards
- Can generate jobs and new business activity
- Can improve the quality of everyday life and health
And here are some of the challenges to expanding the model so that it reaches as many communities as possible:
- Start-up capital
- Expertise to source materials and set up local systems
- Ongoing monitoring and support
There are a number of international and national programs, both public and private, that are expanding their involvement in the creation of community solar programs. There is still a long way to go to provide renewable energy to the billion-plus people who have little or no access to it now. However, based on the analysis of the World Energy Outlook Report, “energy for all” by 2030 is an achievable goal.
 World Energy Outlook 2017: From Poverty to Prosperity, International, International Energy Agency. https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/WEO2017SpecialReport_EnergyAccessOutlook.pdf
 The Paris Agreement, United Nations Climate Change, 2018.
 Plumer, Brad, Trump Will Withdraw U.S. From Paris Climate Agreement, New York Times, June 1, 2017.
 Universal energy access by 2030 is now within reach thanks to growing political will and falling costs, International Energy Agency, 19 October 2017 https://www.iea.org/newsroom/news/2017/october/universal-energy-access-by-2030-is-now-within-reach-thanks-to-growing-political-w.html
 World Energy Outlook, op. cit.
 Ibid., p. 44.
 Ibid., p. 44.
 Michelsen, Charis, Solar Energy From the Sahara Desert Could Power the World – But Will It? December 14th, 2011.
 Ibid., pp. 53-55.
 Chapa, Sergio, Solar microgrid designed in Texas Hill Country deployed in West Africa, San Antonio Business Journal, June 27, 2018.
 Doshi, Vidhi, Every village in India now has electricity. But millions still live in darkness, Washington Post, April 30, 2018.
 Pearce, Fred, In Rural India, Solar-Powered Microgrids Show Mixed Success, Yale Environment 360, January 14, 2016.
 Hill, Joshua S., Caribbean Nations Partner With Global Superstars & Corporate Giants For $1 Billion Climate Accelerator, August 14th, 2018.
 Hutchins Mark, African development bank launches ‘Desert to Power’ program, targeting 10 GW of solar, PV Magazine, May 30, 2018.