Distributed renewables for energy accessi (DREA) play an increasingly important role in delivering energy access in developing countries, providing electricity to between 5% and 10% of the population in several countries.1 (→See Figure 38.) These systems deliver a wide range of services, including electricity for lighting, appliances, productive uses, cooling, irrigation and water pumping, as well as energy for cooking and heating.
Renewables-based electric power systems have proven valuable in rural and peri-urban communities that are difficult or costly to reach through grid electrification programmes. Distributed renewables can provide affordable electricity access that can be scaled up over time, powering not only households but also businesses and community services, such as health care and education. In recent years, solar photovoltaics (PV) has become the technology of choice for off-grid electricity access, but many other renewable access solutions are in place (for example, mini-grids based on mini-hydropower or small wind turbines to power households).
Providing clean cookingii remains the biggest energy access challenge and has seen the least progress in recent years. Many people in the developing world have little choice than to cook using traditional biomass systems, such as indoor open fires or inefficient cook stoves. This results in high levels of household air pollution with serious health impacts that fall disproportionately on women.2 Clean cooking solutions exist but are not always available or affordable.3 In off-grid settings, renewables such as biogas and improved biomass cook stoves can play a role, whereas in urban areas, electricity, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and ethanol are most frequently used. While a switch to LPG has improved health outcomes in many countries, clean cooking ultimately needs to align with decarbonisation objectives.4
Cooling is a critical aspect of the provision of modern energy services. Without access to sustainable coolingiii, labour productivity often remains low, agricultural produce goes to waste, and health care is compromised (for example, vaccine storage is not possible).5 In the rural areas of many developing countries, lack of electricity access is the main reason for the lack of cooling, whereas in urban areas the key factors are a poor standard of housing and the intermittency of electricity supply.6 Distributed renewables can enable the use of cooling, especially when combined with efficient appliances.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to renewed focus on the importance of energy access. Evidence has emerged about the links between long-term exposure to particulate matter from air pollution and the risk of mortality from COVID-19.7 As the crisis has progressed, the challenges of health care and vaccine roll-out in the absence of reliable access to electricity have become increasingly clear.8 (→See Box 8.) Renewables-based energy systems have been highlighted as offering solutions to these energy access problems, as well as providing economic opportunities during the recovery phase.9
BOX 8. Energy Access, Health and COVID-19
A lack of access to modern energy services has implications for health and the provision of medical services. Cooking with polluting fuels has been linked to 4 million premature deaths from illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and people with these diseases also are at higher risk of severe cases of COVID-19. At the same time, a lack of electricity access greatly restricts the available treatment options for COVID-19 and other diseases. Crucial equipment such as ventilators and oxygen generators require constant electricity to function, but 60% of healthcare facilities in 46 middle- and low-income countries lack a reliable power supply. In rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, there is often no electricity at all.
Reliable electricity is essential for vaccine storage, and all of the COVID-19 vaccines that are approved or under development require refrigeration, some as low as minus 70 degrees Celsius. Solar-powered vaccine refrigerators have been available since the 1980s but often fail due to short battery lifetimes or lack of regular maintenance. The global vaccine alliance GAVI has been investing in solar direct-drive refrigerators, which can store vaccines at constant temperatures using ice banks instead of batteries. These refrigerators have already been transformative in remote and under-immunised areas. While they are not able to operate at the very low temperatures that some COVID-19 vaccines require, they are suitable for vaccines that only need to be stored at ordinary fridge temperatures. Cold storage during transport is also crucial, and innovations such as cool boxes with solar-powered batteries can provide a solution for transport to remote locations.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many donor programmes have allocated funds to support the electrification of health services. For examples, Power Africa, funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), redirected programme funds to provide USD 2.6 million in grants to off-grid companies for electrification of rural and peri-urban health clinics.
Source: See endnote 8 for this chapter.
iSee Sidebar 9 in GSR 2014 for more on the definition and conceptualisation of DREA. Note that since 2018 the GSR has used the terminology “distributed renewables for energy access” to distinguish from “distributed renewable energy” (DRE) that has no link to providing energy access.i
iAs per the guidelines of the World Health Organisation for indoor air quality linked to household fuel combustion, access to clean cooking facilities means access to (and primary use of) modern fuels and technologies, including natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), electricity and biogas, or improved biomass cook stoves that have considerably lower emissions and higher efficiencies than traditional three-stone fires for cooking.ii
iiSustainable cooling includes efficient fans, air conditioners, refrigerators and other cold storage, ideally run on renewable electricity. In addition, it covers measures to reduce the need for cooling through insulation, shading, reflectivity or ventilation.iii