Kerosene lamps, such as this one, are used widely for illumination in eastern Africa, but contribute to numerous health and economic problems (Source: Firesika).

The United Nations recently declared the beginning of the Decade of Sustainable Energy for All, continuing the focus on energy access that it began in 2012 with the Year of Sustainable Energy for All. Energy access is widely recognized as a key component of achieving the Millennium Development Goals set out by the United Nations, with impacts on the improvement of health, education, and economic development.

This international focus on energy access stems from the fact that, in many developing areas of the world, energy use is still mostly limited to traditional biomass use (i.e. burning wood for cook fires) and kerosene for lighting, with extremely limited or zero access to modern energy services. In Ethiopia, only 2 percent of the population in rural areas has access to electricity. In Kenya, the inhabitants of remote areas are only slightly better off, with 4 percent electrification rate for the rural population.

However, the use of kerosene for illumination brings with it numerous health, environmental, economic and social problems.  Indoor use of the fuel use significantly deteriorates air quality in homes, leading directly to respiratory illnesses and fatalities. And, as if chronic illnesses are not enough, the risk of fire from overturned kerosene lamps is extremely high. In an interview with an in-country energy expert in Kenya, Worldwatch learned that estimates ranged between 6,000 and 12,000 deaths per year from kerosene fires in Kenya alone, with many of them being children. Overturned kerosene lamps are known to ignite homes quickly and the impacts disproportionately affect women and children, who spend much more of their time within the house.

Kerosene can also be costly and, in many areas where it must be imported, supply bottlenecks and price increases are not uncommon. Its use can cause financial strain on families. Many consumers must buy the fuel daily in small quantities, in order to ensure that they can cover other expenses. In addition, the price of kerosene is linked to the price of oil (being a petroleum product) and can be very volatile.  Those in rural areas are hit especially hard by higher prices. A study by Lighting Africa found that the cost of kerosene in rural areas of Kenya is 46 percent more than in urban areas. In lower income groups, such price increases can be extremely taxing, requiring giving up a significant portion of income just to provide minimal lighting for their home.

While Ethiopia and Kenya recognize their rural populations’ need for access to modern energy services and are working hard to improve the situation, the task is challenging.  Utilities incur a lot of costs extending transmission and distribution lines to remote communities, especially to those far away from existing infrastructure. However, these connections are rarely profitable and, as a result, these communities are often left unconnected.

Even in areas where the transmission and distribution networks exist, households often remain unconnected or lack the necessary cable wiring in their houses. For many potential utility customers, paying for these measures is well beyond their annual income (even if they could afford to pay for the monthly electricity use afterwards).  The utilities themselves often will not finance these costs, even for poorer customers, due to regulatory issues involved in the utilities’ lack of authority beyond the meter. Efforts to circumvent this issue have often proven difficult. In Ethiopia, for instance, microcredit loans for interconnection costs for low income households consumed too much of the utility’s working capital to continue operation.

However, with the falling costs of renewable energy technologies (PV module costs have fallen 75% in the past 5 years) and the growth of information and communication technologies, exciting new opportunities are cropping up to provide rural communities with electricity through distributed generation (DG) systems.

Distributed generation simply refers to the idea and practice of installing small electricity generation systems in individual homes and businesses. The consumers can then utilize electricity produced on their own property for their own needs without the need for expensive grid extension projects and interconnection. With recent technologies, these small power generation units can eventually be connected into microgrids that power entire rural communities (and even further along, can be integrated into a regional or national grid).

Distributed clean energy, such as this solar PV system being installed in Ethiopia, can reduce the need for kerosene lamps and provide energy access in remote areas (Source: Flickr user Bread for the World).

Utilizing clean energy technologies in such distributed capacities could replace the need for kerosene illumination and its associated impacts on health and environment while bringing along the numerous development benefits of electricity access in rural communities. Moreover, given the costs of interconnection and kerosene, distributed generation can prove economical in these communities. However, some recent demonstration projects reveal that the implementation process is challenging and that new innovative ideas are still needed to make such solutions a widespread reality.

To tackle these important issues, Worldwatch Institute is currently developing new projects focusing on rural electrification in eastern Africa. Whether it is country-specific Rural Electrification Roadmaps or the communication of best-practice business models for local renewable energy entrepreneurs, Worldwatch sees potential solutions to these critical energy access issues through the use of sustainable energy technologies and innovative policy ideas.

Reese Rogers is a MAP Sustainable Energy Fellow at Worldwatch Institute.

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