Critics of "off-grid", or decentralized, energy like to say it is not "real" power. These critics prefer centralized energy solutions. But this preference is often both mis-guided and out-dated, especially as the global community attempts to achieve universal energy access by 2030 - i.e. provide electricity for the first time to 1.1 billion people worldwide. Most of those people are poor, and most live in remote areas. How - and when - they get electricity has massive implications - on climate impact, on economic development, on national security, on quality of life and also on energy infrastructure resilience and sustainability.
What's interesting, however, is that perhaps the best case study for why governments in emerging markets such as Sub-Saharan Africa and India should aggressively adopt decentralized solutions is actually one of the 15th wealthiest countries in the world - Australia. Specifically, Western Australia. Like many of the countries dealing with energy poverty, Western Australia is largely rural - it's the size of the United Kingdom, but has just 2.5 million inhabitants, two-thirds of whom live in the city of Perth. The rest live in the legendary "Bush".
According to local utility Western Power, customer density is so low in rural areas that it's impossible to make money. In fact, Western Australia currently subsidizes electricity consumers by more than $500 million, or more than $500 per household. The state's energy minister, Mike Nahan, is having no more of it, and has decided to slash the capacity of the regional grid by closing coal-fired power plants and cutting payments to peaker plants and demand response programs.
Instead, it is rolling out a bold strategy that relies on mini-grids using solar, wind and storage. Some towns will be completely cut off from the grid, and others will have what are being called "thin connections" to the grid as back up. Gone will be the hundreds of kilometers of power lines and the enormous cost of maintaining them.
Western Australia is essentially deconstructing its centralized grid in favor of a "Modular Network", which will be a hybrid of "meshed areas, other areas of thin-pipe connection and micro-grids".
Which leads to this question: Why would national and sub-national governments in Sub-Saharan African and India, and multilateral development banks that fund them, spend most of their money on the extension of a centralized-only energy infrastructure, when countries who've already been down that road are doing a U-Turn and fully embracing decentralized solutions for low-density areas?