Samira Siddique is an MS/PhD candidate in the Energy and Resources Group. Her studies focus on the interconnected social, economic, and physical processes of urbanization and climate change in Asia. She was previously an international development researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, where her work included an evaluation of the Global Protocol for Community-scale Greenhouse Gas Emissions in cities worldwide. Prior to that, she was a researcher at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She received her BA from Wesleyan University in the College of Social Studies and the College of the Environment. Samira has interests in energy in conflict settings, and in urban climate adaptation.
Prior to Berkeley, he was a research associate with Stanford University’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development from 2008 to 2010.
Keywords: off-grid energy; village power; decentralized energy, energy services, energy innovation.
Two critically important and interlinked challenges face the global community in the 21st century: the persistence of widespread energy poverty and the resulting lost economic opportunity; and intensifying human-driven climate disruption. These crises are inexorably linked through the energy technology systems that have so far provided the vast majority of our energy: biomass and fossil fuels. Both the energy service crisis and the climate crisis have become increasingly serious over the past decades, even though we have seen greater clarity over the individual and social costs that each has brought to humanity.
The Sustainable Energy Imperative:
The correlation between access to electricity and a wide range of social goods is overwhelming. However, access to improved energy services alone does not provide a surefire pathway to economic opportunity and an improved quality of life. In Figure 2 we show the correlations that exist between electricity access across nations and a variety of measures of quality of life, such as the Human Development Index (a measure of well-being based in equal thirds on gross national income, life expectancy, and educational attainment). Other indicators studied include gender equality in educational opportunity, and the percentage of students who reach educational milestones. All of these indices improve significantly and roughly linearly with access to electricity. At the same time, the percentage of people below the poverty line, and childhood mortality, both decline with increasing energy access1.
Figure 1: A village micro-grid energy and telecommunications system in the Crocker Highlands of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. The system serves a community of two hundred, and provides household energy services, telecoms and satellite (dish shown), water pumping for fish ponds (seen at center) and for refrigeration. The supply includes micro-hydro and solar generation (one small panel shown here, others are distributed on building rooftops). Photo credit: Daniel M. Kammen.
Figure 2: The Human Development Index (HDI) and various additional metrics of quality of life plotted against the percentage of the population with electricity access. Each data point is country level data a specific point in time. For additional data, see Alston, Gershenson, and Kammen, 20151.
Today the gap between global population and those with electricity access stands at roughly 1.3 billion, with energy services for the unelectrified coming largely from kerosene and traditional biomass, including dung and agricultural residues. This ‘access gap’ has persisted as grid expansion programmes and population have grown.
Grid expansion has roughly kept pace with the increase in the global population. About 1.4 billion people in 2013 are completely off-grid, and many ostensibly connected people in the developing world experience significant outages that range from 20–200+ days a year. The majority of these off-grid residents are in rural and underserved peri-urban areas. Current forecasts are that this number will remain roughly unchanged until 2030, which would relegate a significant portion of the population and the economies of many of the neediest countries on earth to fragile, underproductive lives with less options than they could otherwise have. Traditional grid extension will be slowest to reach these communities. Unless the advances in both energy and information systems that have occurred over the past decade are more widely adopted, there will be little if any chance to alter this trend.
Advances in off-grid systems
Recently we have seen an emergence of off-grid electricity systems that do not require the same supporting networks as the traditional forms of centralized power generation. These technological innovations are as much based on information systems as they are directly about energy technology. While traditional electricity grids can gradually pay off (amortize) the costs of expensive generation, transmission and distribution capital equipment across many customers and across many decades, a new business model is needed to rapidly bring energy services to the rural and urban poor. Mini-grids and products for individual user end-use such as solar home systems have benefitted from dramatic price reductions and performance advances in solid state electronics, cellular communications technologies, electronic banking, and in the dramatic decrease in solar energy costs2. This mix of technological and market innovation has contributed to a vibrant new energy services sector that in many nations has outpaced traditional grid expansion.
The comparison between the utility model of central-station energy systems and this new wave of distributed energy providers is instructive. Traditional dynamo generators and arc lighting perform best at large scale, and they became the mainstay of large-scale electric utilities. The classic utility model of a one-way flow of energy from power plant to consumers is now rapidly changing. The combination of low-cost solar, micro-hydro, and other generation technologies coupled with the electronics needed to manage small-scale power and to communicate to control devices and to remote billing systems has changed village energy. High-performance, low-cost photovoltaic generation, paired with advanced batteries and controllers, provide scalable systems across much larger power ranges than central generation, from megawatts down to fractions of a watt3.
The rapid and continuing improvements in end-use efficiency for solid state lighting, direct current televisions, refrigeration, fans, and information and communication technology (ICT, as seen in Figure 1) have resulted in a ‘super-efficiency trend’. This progress has enabled decentralized power and appliance systems to compete with conventional equipment for basic household needs. These rapid technological advances in supporting clean energy both on– and off-grid are furthermore predicted to continue. This process has been particularly important at the individual device and household (solar home system) level, and for the emerging world of village mini-grids3.
Diverse Technology Options to Provide Energy Services for the Unelectrified:
With these technological cornerstones, aid organizations, governments, academia, and the private sector are developing and supporting a wide range of approaches to serve the needs of the poor, including pico-lighting devices (often very small 1 – 2 watt solar panels charging lithium-ion batteries which in turn power low-cost/high efficiency light emitting diode lights), solar home systems (SHS), and community-scale micro– and mini-grids. Decentralized systems are clearly not complete substitutes for a reliable grid connection, but they represent an important level of access until a reliable grid is available and feasible. They provide an important platform from which to develop more distributed energy services. By overcoming access barriers often through market-based structures, these systems provide entirely new ways to bring energy services to the poor and formerly un-connected people.
Meeting peoples’ basic lighting and communication needs is an important first step on the ‘modern electricity service ladder’ 4. Eliminating kerosene lighting from a household improves household health and safety while providing significantly higher quality and quantities of light. Fuel based lighting is a $20 billion industry in Africa alone, and tremendous opportunities exist to both reduce energy costs for the poor, and to improve the quality of service. Charging a rural or village cell phone can cost $5 – 10/kWh at a pay-for-service charging station, but less than $0.50 cents/kWh via an off-grid product or on a mini-grid.
This investment frees income and also tends to lead to higher rates of utilization for mobile phones and other small devices. Overall, the first few watts of power mediated through efficient end-uses lead to benefits in household health, education, and poverty reduction. Beyond basic needs there can be a wide range of important and highly-valued services from decentralized power (e.g., television, refrigeration, fans, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning, motor-driven applications) depending on the power level and its quality along with demand-side efficiency.
Experience with the ‘off-grid’ poor confirms the exceptional value derived from the first increment of energy service—equivalent to 0.2–1 Wh/day for mobile phone charging or the first 100 lumen-hours of light. Given the cost and service level that fuel-based lighting and fee-based mobile phone charging provide as a baseline, simply shifting this expenditure to a range of modern energy technology solutions could provide a much better service, or significant cost savings over the lifetime of a lighting product (typically 3–5 years).
Mirroring the early development of electric utilities, improvements in underlying technology systems for decentralized power are also being combined with new business models, institutional and regulatory support, and integrated information technology systems5, 6. Historically, the non-technical barriers to adoption have been impediments to widespread adoption of off-grid electricity, and in some cases they still are. A lack of appropriate investment capital also hampers the establishment and expansion of private sector initiatives. Furthermore, complex and often perverse policy environments impair entry for clean technologies and entrench incumbent systems. Subsidies for liquid lighting fuels can reduce the incentive to adopt electric lighting. In addition, the prevalence of imperfect or inaccurate information about quality can lead to market spoiling4 and is also manifested by a lack of consumer understanding and awareness of alternatives to incumbent lighting technology.
Testing laboratories that rate the quality of the lighting products and disseminate the results are an invaluable step in increasing the quality and competitiveness of new entrants into the off-grid and mini-grid energy services space. The Lighting Global (https://www.lightingglobal.org) programme5 is one example of an effort that began as an industry watchdog, but has now become an important platform that provides market insights, steers quality assurance frameworks for modern, off-grid lighting devices and systems, and promotes sustainability through a partnership with industry.
An Action Agenda for Energy Access:
The diversity of new energy service products available, and the rapidly increasing demand for information and communication services, water, health and entertainment in villages worldwide has built a very large demand for reliable and low-cost energy7. Combining this demand with the drive for clean energy brings two important objectives that were for many years seen as in direct competition with alignment around the suite of new clean energy products that can power village energy services.
To enable and expand this process, a range of design principles emerge that can form a roadmap to clean energy economies:
References & Further Reading:
Rapid economic growth sustained in Southeast Asia throughout the new millennium has led to a surge in large-scale infrastructure projects to facilitate industrial productivity and consumption. The state of Sarawak, located along the northern coast of the island of Borneo, is the poorest and most rural state in Malaysia but has long been a focal point for the development of large-scale hydroelectric power. At least six dams are scheduled to be completed in Sarawak by 2020 as part of a high hydro-potential corridor in central Sarawak. These forests have undisputed global and local significance ecologically, biologically and culturally.
In collaboration with local grass-roots renewable project developers and river protection groups we have explored the potential for clean energy alternatives in the state through an integration of modeling tools: (a) modeling long-term utility scale electricity generation alternatives in East Malaysia to determine trade-offs across different technologies; (b) exploring the potential for rural communities in dam-affected areas to satisfy energy access needs using local resources; © demonstrating a rapid assessment method for estimating the impact of mega-projects on biodiversity. Each of these studies provides information useful to the discussion of alternatives and furthers the analysis of green economy costs and benefits. Our published findings have influenced policy discussions at the Ministerial level and a moratorium against the Baram Dam was announced in 2015.
Media coverage of our research and the Baram Dam Moratorium:
The Borneo Project, March 21, 2016 — Fantastic new video on “Development without destruction” in Sarawak.
Mongabay, October 20, 2015 — Indigenous anti-dam activists converge in Sarawak from around the globe
Sarawak Report, September 25, 2015 — BMF Press Statement: Victory, Moratorium on the Baram Dam in Malaysia
The Borneo Post, September 27, 2015 — Small is Beautiful: The People Matter
Media coverage of our June 28, 2015 press conference in Kuching, Sarawak:
The Borneo Post, August 11, 2015 - Adenan wants SEB to light up the rural areas
The Malaysian Insider, July 31, 2015 - Adenan puts Baram dam on hold, agrees to listen to natives’ grouses
Radio Free Sarawak, July 15, 2015 - “Sjotveit should be out”, say Sarawakians
The Malaysian Insider, July 14, 2015 - Stop Baleh dam tender until environmental study scrutinised, says Sarawak PKR
Mongabay.com, July 8, 2015 - Sarawak can meet energy needs without mega-dams: report
The Daily Express — East Malaysia, June 30, 2015 - Sarawak Mega Dam Project Study
The Borneo Post, June 29, 2015 - Borneo May See the End of Mega-Dams
The Malaysian Insider, June 29, 2015 - Activists say Adenan rethinking mega dams policy in Sarawak
The Maylay Mail, June 29, 2015 - CM pulls the brakes on Baram dam until he goes through detailed studies, group claims
International Rivers (2014). Better Solutions Than Megadams for Powering Sarawak, Study Finds. World Rivers Review Vol 29. No 2. Page 5.
Earlier media coverage of this work on energy alternatives to coal and mega-hydropower projects includes this report in TIME Magazine:
February 22, 2011 — Borneo says no to dirty energy
Recent discussions of the relationship between mega-dams and earthquakes has also been receiving local coverage in Borneo: http://www.theborneopost.com/2015/06/28/dams-fault-lines-and-quakes/
For a video summarizing the program, click here.
The impacts of climate change are already being felt across Africa, leading to greater natural resource scarcity, which has contributed to violent conflict in Darfur (Sudan), Mali, and Somalia, among others. This trend is likely to continue, as Africa is projected to be among geographies most severely impacted by climate change. Though the pathway from climate change to greater natural resource scarcity to violence is not a direct one, the risks of conflict will increase as livelihoods are threatened due to greater scarcity of food, water or arable land. With lower government capacities and limited funding to adapt to climate change impacts, and a relatively weak conflict prevention/resolution architecture in place, climate change is likely to have an increasingly important impact on future conflicts in Africa.
This assessment necessitates new policy planning and development thinking. Despite the threats, the broader global interest in climate change also presents significant opportunities to mobilize new interest and momentum for promoting green development in Africa. This can contribute to an effective conflict prevention strategy, and can also drive increased investment and more diversified economies, improved governance and development outcomes, and greater political stability. This project aims to build the theoretical and practical case for a new model for green development, which can provide both political and economic returns, while delivering both climate sensitive and conflict sensitive development.
Our 3–5 year goal is to seed and support a successful “green” pilot in a still to be selected geography in Africa. A successful pilot will require political buy-in and local political champions, as well as new external investment to support green development projects. This can serve as a model that helps demonstrate the political and economic potential of a green approach, the economic potential of a green framework to external investors, as well as effective conflict prevention. It is our hope that the model, once proven, will be scalable in other geographies.
Joanna Lewis is an associate professor of Science, Technology and International Affairs (STIA) at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Her research focuses on energy, environment and innovation in China, including renewable energy industry development and climate change policy. She is currently leading a National Science Foundation-funded project on International Partnerships and Technological Leapfrogging in China’s Clean Energy Sector. Her recent book, Green Innovation in China: China’s Wind Power Industry and the Global Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy, was awarded the 2014 Harold and Margaret Sprout Award by the International Studies Association for best book of the year in environmental studies.
Dr. Lewis is currently a non-resident faculty affiliate with the China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She also serves as an international adviser to the Energy Foundation China Sustainable Energy Program in Beijing, and is a Lead Author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report. She was a member of the National Academies Committee on U.S.-China Cooperation on Electricity from Renewables and has consulted for many domestic and international organizations including UNIDO and USAID. She serves on the Advisory Boards of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations and the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE)’s U.S.-China Program. Dr. Lewis was awarded a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars from 2011–2012, and was a National Committee on US-China Relations Public Intellectuals Program Fellow from 2011–2013.
Previously, Dr. Lewis was a Senior International Fellow at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and a researcher in the China Energy Group at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She served as the technical director for the Asia Society’s Initiative for U.S.-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate, and has also worked at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Defense Fund. From 2003–2004 she was a visiting scholar at the Institute of Energy, Environment, and Economy at Tsinghua University in Beijing and in 2010 was a visiting fellow at the East West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Biomass fuels (wood, charcoal, dung, and agricultural residues) are vital to basic welfare and economic activity in developing nations, especially in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where they meet more than 90% of household energy needs in many nations. Combustion of biofuels emit pollutants that currently cause over 1.6 million annual deaths globally (400,000 in SSA. Because most of these deaths are among children and women, biomass use is directly or indirectly related to multiple Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including environmental sustainability, reducing child mortality, and gender equity.