Asia Electricity: Off-the-Grid Power Solutions

Feature | 19 March 2013

Throughout Asia and the Pacific, developing countries are exploring small, innovative energy solutions that could one day redefine the region's energy equation.

In the small town of Tenganan, in Indonesia, rice farmers have constructed a hydro-power generator that produces about 12 to 15 kilowatts that are used to power a small mill to process locally-produced rice.

In the Philippines, people in the remote village of Bunog who live 30 kilometers from the nearest electricity connection are using solar-powered batteries to light their homes at night, rather than unhealthy kerosene lamps.

In Nepal, 46 homes in the district of Nawalparasi are receiving electricity from two wind turbines that produce 5 kilowatts each. They had only previously seen such bright lights in distant towns near the main electricity connections.

These are a few examples of communities in the Asia and Pacific region that are helping to re-define the way people living in rural areas meet their energy needs. Traditionally, governments have sought to expand their power grids to deliver electricity to unconnected areas. However, in many cases it is not economically feasible to run the power lines into the remote, sometimes arduous terrain of Asia's rural communities or the Pacific's isolated islands. Alternative solutions must be found.

Small solutions to a big problem

Throughout the region, communities located far from the main electricity grid are developing innovative approaches to meet their energy needs. Often with the support of international organizations and governments, they are using household solar panels, mini hydro systems powered by nearby rivers, local wind turbines and biomass or biogas cooking and heating solutions. These small initiatives, if scaled up, could change the energy dynamic in Asia.

"People in rural areas are making the transition from being passive consumers of energy from the grid to active participants in the generation, management and consumption of power."

- Jiwan Acharya, Senior Climate Change Specialist (Clean Energy)

"People in rural areas are making the transition from being passive consumers of energy from the grid to active participants in the generation, management and consumption of power," said Jiwan Acharya, Senior Climate Change Specialist (Clean Energy) and project officer overseeing ADB's Energy for All Program.

The stakes are high. According to the International Energy Agency's (IEA) 2012 World Energy Outlook, nearly 1.3 billion people remain without access to electricity and 2.6 billion do not have access to clean cooking facilities. Eighty percent of these people live in rural areas. This includes an estimated 700 million people in the Asia and Pacific region. Hundreds of millions more people have limited access to modern energy.

The lack of access to clean, efficient energy sources has wide ranging impacts on poverty and human development. It damages the health and limits the education and livelihood opportunities of people who must gather, burn and live around the dirty fuels used for energy needs in many impoverished communities. Harvesting materials to burn for energy also damages the ecosystems that many rural communities depend upon for survival.

Benefits of modern energy

If clean, modern energy could be produced in the most remote corners of Asia and the Pacific, the effect on poor communities would be dramatic. Energy access brings modern medical equipment and refrigeration that reduces disease, as well as child and maternal mortality. It also brings pumping systems that put safe drinking water into communities, and power equipment that reduces hunger by increasing the production of food. Women and girls are relieved of the time consuming and sometime dangerous tasks of collecting water and fuel.

On a broader level, small clean energy solutions contribute to global environmental sustainability. The more clean energy produced off the grid, the less pressure to burn fossil fuels.

Throughout the Asia and Pacific region there are encouraging signs pointing to the fact that an energy revolution is under way.

In the south Asian nation of Bhutan, the challenges of extending the national energy grid are some of the most formidable in the world. The picturesque country is home to mountainous terrain, steep canyons and harsh winters that isolate people into remote communities. Feats of incredible engineering, as well as huge financial resources, would be needed to run power lines to some of Bhutan's mountain communities.

Through its rural electrification program, the national government is getting as many people as possible onto the grid, but it is also exploring off-grid solutions. The program has put solar energy kits into an estimated 1,900 homes that cannot be connected to the grid. Wind power and biogas production is also being used to bring clean energy to these remote areas.

Bringing modern services to energy-poor communities across the Asia-Pacific region is a challenging, yet doable task. IEA estimates that nearly $1 trillion in cumulative investment is needed to achieve universal energy access by 2030. This is equivalent to just 3% of total energy‐related infrastructure investment.

In the field of energy access, like in many other areas, perhaps there are small, local solutions to a global problem.