05 Distributed Renewable Energy in Developing Countries

Access to modern energy services is indispensable to sustainable development. Yet as many as 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity and more than 2.6 billion rely on traditional biomass for cooking and heating.1 (See Reference Tables R20 and R21.) Further, an estimated 200-300 million peoplei use coal in traditional cookstoves to meet their cooking and heating needs.2 Between 2011 and 2013, the total number of people globally without electricity access remained essentially unchanged even as some countries made great leaps forward.ii Latin America and developing Asiaiii advanced, while other regions fell further behind. In India, the number of people without access rose by 17 million to 306 million, and Africa is now home to half of the world's population without electricity.3 (See Figure 31, page 97.)

In many rural areas of developing countries, connections to central electric grids are economically prohibitive and may take decades to materialise, if at all. Moreover, grid connectivity does not address the need for access to sustainable heating and cooking options. Renewable energy systems offer an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate the transition to modern energy services in remote and rural areas, by increasing access to sustainable cooking and heating devices; affordable lighting, communications, and refrigeration; improved public health; and energy for processing and other productive activities. These objectives can be achieved by establishing and strengthening institutional, financial, legal, and regulatory support mechanisms for renewable energy deployment. In turn, these mechanisms can help by improving access to financing, developing the necessary infrastructure, and building awareness about renewable energy and the challenges posed by a lack of access to sustainable sources of energy.4

This section focuses on the wide array of viable and cost-competitive options that can provide reliable and sustainable energy services to displace traditional biomass, carbon-based fuels, and fossil fuel grid-based electricity. Technologies available include: renewables-based, isolated, small-scale electricity generation systems and mini-grids—for battery charging, communications, and water pumping—as well as renewable energy systems for space and water heating, cooling, and clean cooking solutionsiv that replace open fires and inefficient stoves. A variety of innovative, modular, sustainable, and locally relevant renewable energy-based solutions are available to meet the energy needs of individuals and communities, while also increasing energy security, lowering fuel-related costs (including fossil fuel subsidies), up-skilling the labour force, and easing the burden of collecting fuelwood.

Developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are acknowledging the wide array of economic, environmental, and health benefits that accrue from the inclusion of renewable energy in their energy access programmes. These include reductions in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, the formation of new industries, and the creation of jobs.5 To realise these benefits, many countries are moving away from traditional fossil fuel-based systems and adopting decentralised renewable-based systems to expand energy access.6

In recent years, the mini-grid sector has become one of the most dynamic and fastest growing distributed renewable energy sectors.7 Mini-grids are expected to contribute an estimated 45% of the additional generation capacity needed to achieve universal access to energy by 2030. As such, they are expected to play a major role in enabling countries to meet the objectives set by the United Nations Secretary General's Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative.8

One of the aims of the SE4ALL initiative is to help achieve the goal of universal access to modern energy services by 2030. SE4ALL has brought energy access issues to the political forefront, while highlighting the potential for renewable energy combined with energy efficiency improvements. More than 80 developing countries had joined the initiative by early 2014, encompassing about one-half of the target population; however, neither China nor India was on board, and donor countries and agencies were yet to make sizable financial commitments.9 Although progress has been significant in the last few years, there is still a long way to go to reach the goal of clean energy access for all.

Distributed renewable energy markets in developing countries vary greatly among countries and regions in their levels of electrification, access to clean cookstoves, as well as financing models and supporting policies. Markets are shaped by various actors at multiple levels of operation, including: international and regional development agencies, which support and fund large programmes that often cover several countries, particularly in Africa and Asia; country-level programmes, generally planned and implemented by national governments; and community-level businesses and practitioners who work with households directly and may represent the most innovative operational level of the distributed renewable energy market.

i - Predominantly in China, Uruguay, North Korea, and several countries in Eastern Europe.

ii - In Latin America, the absolute number of people without electricity access declined from 31 million to 24 million over this period, while the population without electricity in developing Asia declined by 60 million, per IEA, World Energy Outlook 2011 (Paris: IEA/OECD, 2011) and IEA, World Energy Outlook 2013 (Pahs: IEA/OECD, 2013).

iii - Developing Asia is defined by the IEA to include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Chinese Taipei, DPR Korea, East Timor, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, PDR Laos, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, and Other Asia.

iv - As defined by the International Finance Corporation, this includes all solar portable lanterns, hand crank, and pedal power technology.


In this edition of the GSR, the former Rural Renewable Energy section has been renamed "Distributed Renewable Energy in Developing Countries" to describe more accurately its scope of energy-related developments in developing countries that are of a distributed nature.

Energy systems are considered to be distributed if (1) the systems of production are relatively small and dispersed (such as small-scale solar PV on rooftops), rather than relatively large and centralised; (2) generation and distribution occur independently from a centralised network; or (3) both. For the purpose of this section, "distributed energy" meets both conditions. It provides energy services for electrification, cooking, heating, and cooling that are generated and distributed independent of any centralised system, in urban and rural areas of the developingworld.

Electricity systems fall into three main categories: large centralised grid systems, mini-grids, and isolated systems. All three may have distributed components, but only the latter two are entirely distributed in nature. Most people around the world, and particularly in developed countries, are serviced by the electric grid, which is a large-scale integrated generation, transmission, and distribution network. Mini-grids vary in size and usually service a cluster of households and businesses through an independent distribution network, and most commonly in remote areas. Isolated systems are employed in individual homes or businesses, with all energy being consumed at the site of generation.

Distributed electricity systems serve a variety of objectives. In developed countries, distributed generating assets are often used to reinforce power systems, thereby increasing reliability. In developing countries, where centralised grid systems fail to reach millions of people in rural and remote locations, distributed systems are crucial to providing access to electricity. Mini-grids offer a viable solution in densely populated areas where, despite the small per-household level of demand, the large number of households and businesses provide a load sufficient enough to justify the cost of mini-grid development. Isolated home electricity systems are often the most viable options for those rural households whose demand is currently limited to a few hundred watts, primarily for lighting and phone charging.

The large diversity and number of actors in the field, the decentralised nature of production and consumption of energy, as well as the lack of co-ordination, make data collection and impact assessment challenging, resulting in the absence of consolidated, reliable data. However, data are available for many individual programmes and countries. This section seeks to provide a picture of the current status of distributed renewable energy markets in rural and urban areas in developing countries, and to present an overview of the major networks and programmes that were operational in 2013 in the field of distributed renewable energy. (See Reference Tables R22 and R23.)

1 International Energy Agency (IEA), World Energy Outlook 2013 (Paris: IEA/OECD, 2013), http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/resources/energydevelopment/energyaccessdatabase/.

2 Ibid.

3 India from ibid.; Africa from IEA, World Energy Outlook 2011 (Paris: IEA/OECD, 2011), and from IEA, op. cit. note 1, http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/resources/energydevelopment/accesstoelectricity/

4 International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Renewable Energy Jobs & Access (Abu Dhabi: 2012), https://www.irena.org/DocumentDownloads/Publications/Renewable_Energy_Jobs_and_Access.pdf.

5 Lighting Africa, Lighting Africa Market Trends Report 2012: Overview of the Off-Grid Lighting Market in Africa (Nairobi: nternational Finance Corporation (IFO/World Bank, 2013), http://africa.solarenergyevents.com/resource-centre/whitepaper/ighting-africa-market-trends-report-2012.

6 Ibid.

7 Daniel Schnitzer et al., Microgrids for Rural Electrification (Washington, DC: UN Foundation, February 2014), http://energyaccess.org/images/content/files/MicrogridsReportFINAL_low.pdf.

8 IEA, World Energy Outlook2011, op. cit. note3, p.26, http://www.iea.org/media/weowebsite/energydevelopment/weo2011_energy_for_all.pdf; IEA, op. cit. note 1, http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/media/weowebsite/energydevelopment/WE02013_EnergyForAll.pdf.

9 United Nations (UN) Sustainable Energyfor All, "Country Level Actions," http://www.se4all.org/actions-commitments/country-level-actions/, viewed 10 February 2014; UN Development Programme (UNDP) and World Health Organization (WHO), The Energy Access Situation in Developing Countries, A Review Focusing on the Least Developed Countries and Sub-Saharan Africa (New York: 2009), http://www.who.int/indoorair/publications/Energy_Access_Report_Brief.pdf. Note that U.S.-based Bank of America committed USD 50 billion over 10 years to finance Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy and Energy Access and other activities that advance the low-carbon economy, per Sustainable Development in Action, Special Report of the SD in Action Newsletter, July 2013, p.9, http://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/930Report%20on%20Voluntary%20 Commitments%20and%20Partnerships.pdf.