Do we need electricity grids in emerging markets?

Electricity grids have been powering cities across the world since the early 1900s. As the world continues to develop at different speeds, and rural areas demand more and more electricity, is the traditional electricity grid still the best option?


Providing electricity to countryside homes will likely have ripple effects on eradicating poverty and increasing the sustainable development of these areas. Kerosene lamps are main source of light at night in many rural homes in developing countries. These lamps have been known to cause injuries when broken, as the highly flammable fuel can severely burn those nearby.


Companies like d.light and M-KOPA have attempted to address this safety issue associated with kerosene lamps by developing solar powered LED lights to replace the kerosene. While these LED lamps may have a much higher upfront cost than kerosene lamps, they have very little maintenance costs and much lower life-time costs. Providing electricity to such homes not only reduces the risks of accidents, but also increases educational performance as students are able to read and continue to study at night.


In addition to the basic LED lamps, both d.light and M-KOPA have began to develop home kits that include solar panels, energy converters, lights, fans, mobile  phone chargers and other low-power appliances. They have hopes of developing fridges and TVs that can be powered by solar energy to provide more health safety as well as entertainment and the comforts enjoyed in the modern world.


Both d.light and M-KOPA are essentially skipping the grid. Traditionally, these sorts of appliances are powered by wall sockets that are connected to a main electricity grid of the local city or town, where the energy is being produced somewhere far off and unknown, leaving the energy source rather ambiguous. This new system of having electricity being generated by the sun, wind, or water not only skips the grid and its infrastructural challenges, but also harnesses the new technological developments in renewable energy that potentially lets these areas also leapfrog over the reliance on fossil fuels. These products are also very accessible to many rural areas as the payments are done on mobile, a popular medium for money transfers in a lot of developing countries, and are set up with a monthly payment scheme, after which the appliance(s) fully belong to the buyer with no continual costs.


There has been an explosion of interest for off-grid power in emerging markets because it seems to solve a problem with minimal costs. It is expensive to extend grid lines to reach rural areas, and often these extension projects are motivated by politics instead of economically rational decision making. Off-grid electrification programs have been successful in Mexico, China, Bangladesh, India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka.


I was recently in Sa Pa, Vietnam, with my family on a hiking trip where we walked through many rural villages that were surrounded by rice paddies, agricultural land and cattle -- needless to say, these homes were not connected to the local grid supplying the nearby town. Instead, I learned that most of these homes were getting electricity from hydropower. As these homes were relying on agriculture as their main source of income, they were all somewhat near a water source, thus providing an excellent opportunity to harness the energy being generated there. Some of the homes we passed were even equipped with TVs, all powered by renewable energy.


Seeing this gives me a lot of hope for the future of renewable energy supplying the world's electricity demand. If these houses are able to be self sustaining, is there a possibility of other homes doing the same in the future? There are homes that exist now that do do this -- for example, Self Reliance, a house designed and made by Middlebury College students that is fully self sustaining. It is fully equipped with solar panels on the roof to supply the power for heating, cooling, and all electrical needs (including a fridge, stove, oven, TV, and powerpoints). The house is designed to maximise the heat from the sun, collect rainwater for plant watering and made from recycled and sustainable materials. And it normally generates more energy than its three residents use.


Does this mean there is an opportunity for the world to move away from the grid system and edge more towards renewables?  


Optimistically, I want to say yes. But, I don’t think this is for everyone. There is so much infrastructure surrounding the electricity grid in almost every urban area in the developed world that it seems silly to remove all of that and have every home change its entire system to accommodate a self-reliant model. It may end up being even more wasteful. For emerging markets though, this renewables-focused no-grid model seems to be a great pathway forward. So many developing countries struggle to develop without the harmful emissions that developed countries emitted years ago without reprimands, so powering large areas with renewables may be a step forward or maybe one further than what developed countries are doing now.

Governments, NGOs, and residents all need to work together to make this sustainable future a reality. It seems very possible, it just needs to continue to be developed, implemented, and become instituted.

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