The melting pot of Istanbul was the venue for the 2015 G20 Energy Ministers meeting in October, where Governments and practitioners from around the world debated the implications of the new Global Goal 7, to “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” by 2030.
It’s a while since I have been to a G20 event, and the contrasts with previous events could not be more stark. In the past, I have witnessed a uniform focus on building conventional energy supply for economic development (primarily in urban areas), with perhaps a nod to the issues of climate change. The question of energy access has always been there, but it has been a case of waiting for the inevitable roll-out of the universal grid.
Today, and at 2015 G20, the notion of energy provision now has two diverging interpretations, depending on who you ask. Some (I would argue traditionalists) still view it as access to the grid; anything less is sub-standard. Others (I would call the “enlightened”) view it as access to basic services that require power – light, radio, TV, appliances such as fans or fridges. Historically these devices have all used mains power, but the development of new, efficient appliances, as well as better off-grid generation and storage solutions, is changing that reality.
Both interpretations have merit, but to put this into the sub-Saharan African context, it is still the case that in many countries, even if the grid is available in a rural area, the connection cost is as much as $1,000, before you’ve paid for any actual energy. You can already purchase a lot of stand-alone energy service for $1,000, and the case for off-grid provision will only become more attractive as equipment gets ever cheaper.
And so, in the G20 discussions, Governments seemed to be converging on a much more balanced view of energy provision. For productive use and for high-density urban settings, the grid remains king. But even here, opinions are starting to change. The joke making the rounds in many sub-Saharan African cities goes:
“What did people here use before candles?”
In other words, the grid infrastructure in many countries is struggling to meet the growing needs of those who are already connected, (let alone to support a mass roll-out to new regions). Rolling blackouts for hours on end are increasingly the norm, and many individuals are relying on stand-alone backup systems in the form of diesel generators and battery packs to try to provide continuity of supply. Even in cities, consumers are using a mix of on and off-grid technologies.
For servicing rural areas, advocacy for distributed power is growing stronger and stronger. The grid still plays a valuable role, particularly for productive use and in higher density areas. But for rural domestic settings, where more than half the population of sub-Saharan Africa live, grid energy provision is still very limited. Distributed power provides the opportunity for individuals to benefit from at least some power, probably decades before the grid will arrive. And as households “switch on” via distributed means, the evidence suggests that standards of living improve and earning capability increases, and consumers travel up the “energy escalator” towards the services that are routinely available in so-called developed countries, without ever seeing a mains pylon.
This is not just a question of semantics, this is a change in the tide. There is a real shift of opinion occurring in the decision-makers that map out the future at national levels, towards a blend of the grid and off-grid technology in order to achieve universal energy access by 2030. Long may it continue!