Silvia Francioso

Energy Access - Background and Status of the Off-grid Sector

Discussion created by Silvia Francioso Partner on 15-Jan-2018
Latest reply on 16-Jan-2018 by Stefano Roveda

My last post regarding Energy Access in Africa (Energy Access - Is it a priority in Africa?) sparked up some questions regarding the basics of the Off-Grid Sector. Therefore, I thought of gathering the three FAQs in another discussion post, hoping to sparkle more interest and fruitful future conversations. if you're interested in such conversation, please join me and follow the Developing countries inclusion group!


  • What is energy poverty and how should we measure it?

Energy poverty is defined by the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative as a lack of access to basic and reliable energy services, such as access to electricity and clean cooking facilities. This constitutes a penalty that results in billions of people living in poverty across the Global South paying more per energy unit than their wealthier counterparts do for basic services.

It is not easy to measure how many energy poor people are out there: the 1.1 billion people figure given by the IEA energy access statistics can be potentially misleading as it does not take into account what kind of access the electrified households really have, as across the world there are countless definition for energy access. For example, there are countries like India which consider a village as electrified if 10% of its buildings have a grid connections (without specifying if electricity actually flows in those cables). The most accurate measure is given by the Multi-tier Framework, a broader energy access definition and metric that focuses in on the quality of energy being accessed, defining qualitative and quantitative attributes that create five tiers of energy access (see here a brief overview), giving a more nuanced picture of the whole issue.

  • What progress have been made over the years (a.k.a. how big is still the problem)?

According to the IEA Energy Access Outlook for 2017, the Off-grid population is declining, thanks to the great progress in India and the positive trend in sub-Saharan Africa where electrification efforts have been outpacing population growth since 2014. Nearly all of those who gained access to electricity worldwide, did so through new grid connections, mostly with power generation from fossil fuels. Renewables have been gaining ground in the last five years, with off-grid systems and mini-grid leading the trend, again according to IEA statistics.



These figures and statements have welcomed with skepticism by those who work on the ground in developing countries; Nikhil Jaisinghani, founder of Mera Gao Power, a micro-grid provider in Northern India, has crunched some numbers cross-checking IEA numbers with World Bank archives. In this article, he concludes that instead of 1.7 billion people off-grid in 2000, we have 1.45 billion. And instead of 1.1 billion off-grid in 2015, we have 1.4 billion. Therefore, according to him, the off-grid population has declined by 3% only instead of the 35%, portrayed by the IEA!! As a conclusion, there is no robust answer to the question "How many people live off- grid today?", but it is absolutely true that the industry still requires investments in order to reach SDG7 in time, as pointed out by Shell Foundation in this super cool infographic, and that efforts in better research of the problem should be increased globally.


  • What do you think it would be a solutions (a.k.a. where do I spend my daily professional efforts)?

Well, I focus on those markets where the centralized approach of grid extension is both technically and financially inefficient in reaching out the off-grid population, due to the large distances between power plants and demand centers, as well as the remoteness and (in some cases) the low density of rural population. New research from the IEA suggests that decentralized systems can provide the least-cost solution for nearly 75% of the most challenging electricity connections needed in remote areas of sub-Saharan Africa until 2030 to achieve the goal of universal access. In India, the Vasudha foundation in a report has estimated in 2014 that in India if the village is more than 3 km from the main grid, the cost of supplying electricity from decentralized renewable sources is far below the cost of supplying from conventional sources (given the same level of energy services provided).

It is important to acknowledge that the market for pico-solar and solar home system is larger than you probably expect: it generated around $95 million cash sales revenues between January and June 2017 (figure that excludes all the revenues through mobile money pay-as-you-go schemes!), according to the GOGLA (Global Off-Grid Lighting Association) Sales Data Collection. These systems provided improved energy access to more than 300 million people as of the end of 2016 and represented about 6% of new electricity connections worldwide between 2012 and 2016, mainly in rural areas. In some countries, decentralized systems are providing an increasing share of new connections and gaining recognition as important part of the future of national energy systems. For instance, more than 10% of the population of Bangladesh and 30% of the off-grid population of Kenya are served by DREA systems, according to IRENA.


The largest markets for off-grid solar products in 2017 were in India, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda. Regionally, sales increased in West and Central Africa, the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America. The most significant increases in the sales of solar off-grid products were reported in Burkina Faso (257%) and Rwanda (114%). In several countries (e.g. Tanzania, Uganda) the number of off-grid systems deployed outnumbered the grid connections reported by utility companies.


In conclusion, I truly believe that decentralized renewable energy sources (solar in particular) are the only option in several cases to ensure electrification and generate countless impacts on the rural populations across the world. What do you think?