PublicationBook SMART VILLAGES: New thinking for off-​​grid communities worldwide

July 24, 2015
Publication Type:





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​.light​ing​global​.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:



  • Estab­lish clear goals at the local level: Uni­ver­sal energy access is the global goal by 20307, but estab­lish­ing more near-​​term goals that embody mean­ing­ful steps from the present sit­u­a­tion will show how what is pos­si­ble and at what level of effort. Cities and vil­lages have begun with audits of energy ser­vices, costs, and envi­ron­men­tal impacts. A num­ber of tools are often cited as excel­lent start­ing points, includ­ing the cli­mate foot­print assess­ment tools like http://​cool​cli​mate​.berke​ley​.edu, and the HOMER soft­ware pack­age (http://​www​.home​ren​ergy​.com) used by many groups to design both local mini-​​grids and to plan and cost out off-​​grid energy options


  • Empower vil­lages as both design­ers and as con­sumers of local­ized power: Vil­lage solu­tions nec­es­sar­ily vary greatly, but clean energy resource assess­ments, eval­u­a­tion of the needed infra­struc­ture invest­ment, and, most often neglected but most impor­tant, the social struc­tures around which suf­fi­cient train­ing exists to make the vil­lage energy sys­tem a suc­cess.   In a pilot in rural Nicaragua, once the assess­ment was com­plete8 move­ment from eval­u­a­tion to imple­men­ta­tion quickly became a goal of both the com­mu­nity and a local com­mer­cial plant.


  • Make equity a cen­tral design con­sid­er­a­tion: Com­mu­nity energy solu­tions have the poten­tial to lib­er­ate women entre­pre­neurs and dis­ad­van­taged eth­nic minori­ties by tai­lor­ing user-​​materials and energy plans to meet the cul­tural and lin­guis­tic needs of these com­mu­ni­ties. National pro­grammes often ignore busi­ness spe­cial­ties, cul­tur­ally appro­pri­ate cook­ing and other home energy needs. Think­ing explic­itly about this is both good busi­ness and makes the solu­tions much more likely to be adopted.


Ref­er­ences & Fur­ther Reading:

  1.  Alstone, Peter, Ger­shen­son, Dim­itry and Daniel K. Kam­men (2015) Decen­tral­ized energy sys­tems for clean elec­tric­ity access, , , 305 – 314.
  2. Alstone, Peter, Ger­shen­son, Dim­itry and Daniel K. Kam­men (2015) Decen­tral­ized energy sys­tems for clean elec­tric­ity access, Nature Cli­mate Change, 5, 305 – 314.
  3. Zheng, Cheng and Kam­men, Daniel (2014) An Innovation-​​Focused Roadmap for a Sus­tain­able Global Pho­to­voltaic Indus­try, Energy Pol­icy, 67, 159–169.
  4. Daniel Schnitzer, Deepa Shinde Louns­bury, Juan Pablo Car­vallo, Ran­jit Desh­mukh, Jay Apt, and Daniel M. Kam­men (2014) Micro­grids for Rural Elec­tri­fi­ca­tion: A crit­i­cal review of best prac­tices based on seven case stud­ies (United National Foun­da­tion: New York, NY). http://​ener​gy​ac​cess​.org/​i​m​a​g​e​s​/​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​f​i​l​e​s​/​M​i​c​r​o​g​r​i​d​s​R​e​p​o​r​t​F​I​N​A​L​_​h​i​g​h​.​pdf
  1. Casil­las, C. and Kam­men, D. M. (2010) The energy-​​poverty-​​climate nexus, Sci­ence, 330, 1182
  2. Azevedo, I. L., Mor­gan, M. G. & Mor­gan, F. (2009) The tran­si­tion to solid-​​state light­ing. Pro­ceed­ings of the IEEE 97, 481–510 (2009).
  3. Mil­eva, A., Nel­son, J. H., John­ston, J., and Kam­men, D. M. (2013) Sun­Shot Solar Power Reduces Costs and Uncer­tainty in Future Low-​​Carbon Elec­tric­ity Sys­tems, Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence & Tech­nol­ogy, 47 (16), 9053 – 9060.
  4. Sova­cool, B. K. The polit­i­cal econ­omy of energy poverty: A review of key chal­lenges. Energy for Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment 16, 272–282 (2012).
  5. SE4ALL. (2013) Global Track­ing Frame­work (United Nations Sus­tain­able Energy For All, New York, NY).


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