Freeplay Energy and its partners, such as UN agencies, NGOs and government departments, are working hard to put small-scale clean energy products in the hands of the 1.2 billion people worldwide who currently live and work off-grid. Indeed, Freeplay’s solar and dynamo-powered radios, lamps and lighting systems have been designed specifically for this purpose.
Burt there are those who claim that such products merely scratch the surface of the issue. They say that, instead of focusing on small-scale solutions, the answer lies in massive investment in mains energy infrastructures, especially in Africa. This latter approach, they say, will provide a long-term solution, reach more people and provide the energy required to sustain economic development. It appears to be a credible stance, but there are some serious problems with pursuing this option alone.
As we have written before, green energy has an important contribution to make to increasing access to electricity. However, even if major investments are made in developing renewable energy grids, it is unlikely that remote rural communities will be connected to reliable power supplies with any greater speed than is currently happening.
So, not quickly and possibly not at all – because, according to Bill Gates, who recently spoke to Quartz Africa, the amount of electricity available per person in sub-Saharan Africa, when you factor out South Africa, is lower today than it was 30 years ago.
Citing forecasts from the International Energy Agency, Gates goes on to say that even the “best-case analysis right now is fairly bleak in terms of how much electrification is likely to come to Africa.”
When only 290 million out of 915 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to electricity, and the number without access is increasing, simply waiting for mains energy to reach rural communities is not an option.
It is vital that long-term plans for clean energy grids goes ahead. Large-scale solar and wind supplies are being developed in some countries and, according to Gates, a breakthrough in battery technology could be especially valuable in Africa, making it possible to spread the usage of energy generated from cheap, clean sources out over time.
However, people’s short- and medium-term needs also need to be met. That means making local power generation and self-powered products as widely available as possible. Lighting Global the UN and a range of partner governments and agencies are making good progress, particularly in West Africa. Suppliers such as Freeplay Energy are developing an expanding range of reliable and durable solar-powered products which provide light, energy and access to communications, thereby supporting improved educational attainment, agricultural development and local economic growth.
Mains and micro power generation is not an either/or choice. Both are desperately needed and until both approaches are given equal weight, hundreds of millions of African people living off-grid will continue to miss out on some of the most basic utilities of 21st Century life.