Rapid technological progress has made distributed renewable energy an affordable solution to
the problem of rural electrification. Our new research at the Initiative for Sustainable Energy
Policy (ISEP) shows, however, that governments continue to ignore distributed renewables in
rural electrification planning.
From home systems to mini-grids, decentralized solar technology can now bring energy access
to rural areas that are not suitable for grid extension because of low power demand, population
density, and distance to existing grid infrastructure. The International Energy Agency (IEA)
estimates that almost one-half of all new electrification by 2030 will be based on decentralized
The growth of distributed renewables still depends on government policy, though, as poor
households cannot afford new energy technologies without subsidies or other forms of
support. A purely private model of energy access would favor the wealthier households of the
urban middle class and leave the poor and the marginalized behind.
In our research, we reviewed the rural electrification plans of the 20 “high-impact
countries” identified by the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All. From Nigeria to
Myanmar, these countries have large non-electrified populations and thus present an
opportunity for improving energy access through better policies.
We found that 14 of these 20 countries had published a national rural electrification
plan, but only eight countries had announced an explicit target for distributed renewables with
a clear time line and an implementation plan. The only country that planned a significant
investment in distributed renewables was Kenya, which in aims to invest US $400 million per
year in distributed renewables until 2021. These results are in line with Power for All’s earlier
research on the minor role that distributed renewables play in rural electrification policy.
These numbers reveal a wide gap between techno-economic trends and government planning.
Although distributed renewables are growing more appealing with better technologies and
business models, government planning lags behind and often fails to realize the benefits of
Ending energy poverty is not possible unless even the poorest households gain access
modern technologies. In sparsely populated areas, distributed renewables offer the fastest and
least expensive way to achieve this goal. Governments, with support from development
agencies and initiatives such as SEforALL and Power for All, should update their rural electrification plans and identify opportunities to achieve their energy access goals through a balanced mix of grid extension and distributed renewables.
Johannes Urpelainen (@jurpelai) is the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Professor of Energy,
Resources and Environment in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)
at Johns Hopkins University. He is also the Founding Director of the Initiative for Sustainable
Energy Policy (ISEP) at SAIS.