For decades, the noisy, sooty belch of diesel generators has brought expensive, polluting power to poor communities living off or under the grid -- from Bangladesh to Zambia. Recent developments, however, signal the beginning of a diesel “death spiral”, as renewable, decentralized solutions gain traction with governments, businesses and households. It will take time, and the trend is not consistent yet in all countries, but the handwriting is on the wall.
The positive climate impact of replacing diesel with small-scale hydro, solar and biomass generation has already been well quantified. Per kWh, small diesel generators create 2x the CO2 emissions of coal power plants. Eliminating CO2 and black carbon from diesel mini-grids can reduce emissions by 115 million tonnes of CO2 per year. In India, new data from IEEFA shows that replacing diesel irrigation pumps with solar power can reduce CO2 emissions by 224 million tonnes. Not to mention telco towers and numerous other heavy diesel users.
But the savings go far beyond the carbon budget, and include health and financial benefits for rural families, as well as for businesses with no grid access or with low quality access and frequent disruptions from power outages.
In Myanmar, for example, company Mee Panyar is helping villages transition from diesel to solar power generation. It found that the switch decreases household electricity prices by up to 50%, reduces carbon emissions by 60% and creates new livelihood opportunities from productive use.
In neighboring India, a recent study by IEEFA found that total savings from replacing conventional pumps with solar-powered pumps adds up to US $25.7 billion annually. The government’s ambitious KUSUM program is a major step in making that reality, with plans to invest nearly US $5 billion to develop 25.75 GW of solar-powered irrigation by 2022. India is also working to replace diesel for powering telecom towers, another top consumer of diesel aside from irrigation.
India-based CEEW says that the operating cost of solar pumps is low, while also being better than diesel pumps for farmers from a lifecycle cost perspective. That said, the benefit of choosing solar over diesel for a particular farmer depends on factors such as the estimated lifetime of the system, utilization of the pump, the price of the diesel fuel, and the availability of finance.
In sub-Saharan Africa, meanwhile, new research from 2018 points to a similar opportunity, noting that in many countries emergency diesel generators represent grossly 10–20 percent of a country’s total power generating capacity.
Nigeria, most notably, is a huge consumer of diesel, with an estimated 60 million liquid fuel generators being used to power telecom towers, industry, business and households. The government’s Energizing Economies Initiative plans to solarize more than 80,000 shops within a year, and power over 340,000 micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises. Many of those businesses are reliant on diesel.
Getting rid of diesel is also happening within the humanitarian context, where it has been the default solution for the 68.5 million people worldwide who were forcibly displaced in 2018. The Moving Energy Initiative is leading an effort to convert many of these operations to solar.