This post forms part of the SDG series at Scene Connect for Global Goals Week. As global representatives gather at the UN Headquarters in New York for the Sustainable Development Summit 2019, we reflect on how our own projects support the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Ryan, electrical engineer at Scene, describes the challenges to energy access in the rural Global South, and explains how Scene’s EMBLEM project can support the growth of mini-grids by unlocking income for poor households through evolving grids with inclusive, gender-balanced governance models.
Electricity access is a presumed commodity in many parts of the world. As reliable access to electricity has been shown to provide opportunities for economic and social development, the UN has committed to ensuring universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services by 2030.
With almost 1 billion people without access to electricity, there is still a long way to go. The pressing need to act on climate change, and the finite nature of fossil fuels, highlights the need to connect up those without access to a sustainable and renewable fuel source.
With electricity access, the devil is in the detail. Providing an electricity connection is not what SDG 7 sets out to do: reliable, renewable electricity, on demand, is what is needed to improve prosperity. The Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) outlines the multi-tier framework for measuring energy access. This de-facto standard highlights the disparity between simply ‘having access’ and the optimum Tier Five access which is taken for granted in countries like the UK.
However, grid connection is not, and will never be, the complete solution. So-called ‘last-mile’ electricity distribution to remote consumers with a low ability to pay requires a different, more affordable approach where the upfront costs can be met. Decentralised energy, while in theory a much more effective method of providing energy access, is challenged by a host of technical, geographical, and economic challenges.
Mini-grids represent one technologically – and market-ready – decentralised energy strategy enabling affordable and clean energy. However, these systems often need initial buy-in from a large energy user - an ‘anchor load’ – which represents a reliable future demand for the energy (e.g. a phone recharge business or small milling factory). With more predictable cash flows than smaller users, these anchor loads play a key role in securing affordable financing for mini-grid growth.
Mini-grids have potential to provide electricity access to half a billion people. However, providing electricity access to communities where little business exists is how we fully realise SDG 7, which aims (as with all the goals) to “leave no-one behind”. This means that rural consumers, with low income and low energy demand, will be connected to a reliable electricity supply with an affordable tariff. This allows the prosperous cycle of education, business creation, and economic growth to develop, contributing to many other SDGs along the way.
This growth of demand from basic (affordable) lighting systems up to tier five access has traditionally been slow, lacking the technology to allow for smooth transition. Instead moving between the tiers has often required a step-change between systems along with new investment, making old solar home systems or lanterns redundant within a new upgraded system.
Here at Scene, we are developing a solution to enable last-mile decentralised energy access through a nano-grid solution that is able to grow as community electricity demand grows. Under the EMBLEM project, we are piloting an ‘evolving grid’ in Rwanda, in which neighbours can trade surplus energy generated through interconnected solar systems. This will unlock a new stream of revenue for solar owners, allowing for new assets to be bought over time, and the energy system to evolve. But, here’s the clever bit, Scene’s nano-grid technology allows the interconnected system to grow from the existing installation, allowing low-tier energy access to turn into high-tier access, without the step change and the associated cost of a brand-new system.
The business model for last-mile, decentralised energy access is a tough nut to crack. It must make moving up the energy ladder as achievable as possible, whilst being sustainable over the long-term. Not only must it be affordable, but community involvement and inclusivity is also essential - female empowerment is a key method to promote gender equality and can also assist quicker growth.
Universal access to modern and clean energy services means leaving no one behind and progressing towards a high level of service to allow for productive business uses. To get there for last-mile distribution, evolving access is required, with each rung of the ladder being as accessible as possible. The SDGs are all linked, and providing clean, modern, universal energy access in a sensitive way will progress the world further than we can even imagine. The work continues now.
- Ryan Gilmour