New Report Claims Off-grid Smart Villages Can Deliver Sustainable Path to Rural Development

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Key Points:

Off-grid technology can catalyse sustainable development for even the 1.1 billion without electricity in the remotest “last mile” communities

Bottom-up approach key to achieving SDG7 Energy Access for All GoalHub and spoke models combining hybrid mini-grids and solar home systems can provide starting point

Governments need to create integrated off-grid and grid extension strategies

Small-scale finance and support for off-grid entrepreneurs now more important than centralised aid programmes

Women and youth can play vital role

Now need to move ambition beyond lighting and phone charging to demonstrating more productive uses of renewable energy

1.1 billion people are still without electricity in the world. Most live in remote rural communities. The Smart Villages Initiative takes a rare bottom-up approach by bringing together key frontline stakeholders

– entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers, villagers, NGOs, financiers, civil society and development organisations, policymakers and regulators

– to determine whether off-grid renewable energy combined with technology leapfrogging can provide a catalyst for sustainable development and lead to the emergence of “Smart Villages”.

Today, after running 15 Smart Village workshops across East Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and South America with over 600 participants, the initiative has released its mid-term report. The main conclusion is that off-grid Smart Villages can provide a sustainable development solution for even the remotest locations and realising   Sustainable Energy Goals SDG7’s goal of Energy Access for All and other related SDGs.

To enable this vision to be achieved, the report calls for governments to devise and adopt clear integrated off-grid and grid extension strategies, as well as listing six areas of concern that need to be addressed:

Access to affordable finance – especially working capital and lower transaction costs for companies looking to sell solar home systems and investment capital for mini-gridsSupport for entrepreneurs

–providing business incubation and advisory services, creating regulatory frameworks and standards and cutting red tapeCapacity building

– addressing the major lack of skills (technical and business) at all levelsCreating awareness

– seeing is believing, villagers themselves need to know the off-grid technologies available and the opportunities they provide to increase productivityGender and age

– Men and women tend to prioritise energy uses differently, so both need to be involved when communities are approached regarding energy initiatives, and in subsequent decisions. Youth also need to be engaged to realise villages have a futureGiveaways

– In many areas distribution of pico solar lights and solar home systems has ‘spoilt the market’, undermining the business activities of local entrepreneurs, and creating an entitlement mentality which jeopardises the prospects of future more commercial initiatives.

In addition, the report looks in depth at specific issues related to individual components of energy access – solar home systems, mini-grids and cookstoves. Some of the key findings are:

Solar home systems need to expand to pave the way for families to advance up the energy access escalator and cover appliances and productive enterprises

For mini-grids finance, ownership and finding anchor loads from, for example, schools or clinics that can justify investment, are barriers

Cultural, technical, quality standard and financial issues need to be addressed if the health, social and environmental concerns about cookstoves are to be solved

According to Dr John Holmes, Co-Leader and main author of the report, one of the strongest and most consistent messages from the workshops was the need for off-grid energy initiatives to be founded on close and extensive community engagement to ensure the support of villagers and so that the development path and energy schemes can benefit from, and build on, local knowledge, cultures and customs. “Villagers should retain control of their development path and should be the main drivers of energy initiatives. In the absence of such engagement and buy in, energy initiatives are likely to fail.

However, we have been encouraged by the initial positive reaction to our bottom-up approach and the “Smart Villages” idea from both villagers themselves in the regions we have visited and other participants. Now in the second half of the initiative we will look to move on from the feasibility of off-grid energy provision and initial impacts of lighting and phone-charging in such communities to assessing its potential impacts further up the ladder. In other words, what would healthcare and sanitation, education, social and other services, agriculture, business and life look like in “Smart Villages”.

The Smart Villages Initiative intends to present final findings in the form of policy recommendations to national governments, the EU and other international bodies in mid-2017.

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