Prices for solar and wind are coming down dramatically, putting such technologies within reach of some of the poorest people in the world. At the same time, basic household lighting and appliances are growing more efficient, meaning the same small solar systems are gaining in usefulness.
That’s not to say the energy access challenge isn’t still immense. The bank’s latest report shows that 1.06 billion people (about 15% of humanity) still lack access to grid power. Though the figures are somewhat ambiguous–they don’t account for forms of distributed power, like small diesel generation or home solar–it’s clear that electrification is far behind where it was supposed to be by now.
Extending electricity grids is expensive, and low-income families who use little power are not the most attractive customers. Micro-grids that localize supply and demand are more scalable, says Foster, while pay-as-you-go solar systems–where households pay off the cost through mobile payments–offer independence from the grid altogether. “As you get into rural areas, off-grid technologies now have quite a strong cost advantage and increasingly they’re providing more quality of service,” Foster says. “People used to think solar was a basic service. But with the declining cost and the higher efficiency of light bulbs and other appliances, you can actually get quite a reasonable level of service through a modestly-sized system.”
The report argues that energy access is a foundational human need and that many of the other Sustainable Development Goals flow from it, including improving health and education in poor communities. For perhaps the first time, it’s now possible to get electricity to everyone at a price they can afford, thus spreading many associated humanitarian benefits.
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