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No Grid? No Problem! The second Wireless-Revolution

The dream of most people who live off-the-grid is to be one day on-the-grid. The expectations from full power access are large: enough electricity for lighting, communications, entertainment, and livelihood. The connection to the grid represents the hope of a better life because full power access means that households, companies and communities have sufficient, affordable and reliable supply of all energy services and products which are needed to reduce poverty related to the lack of energy.
Sometimes governments take advantage of this high symbolic value of power grid and install, shortly before elections, at least the power poles. So they suggest: the electricity will also come to you – if you vote correctly.

Bad news
When the current flows, the reality is, however, often sobering: the connection to the grid is expensive and therefore has to be heavily subsidized in order for a household to be able to pay for the connection at all. For example, the connection to the electricity network in Kenya costs around $830. Far too expensive for many households. The price is therefore artificially subsidized by Kenyan Power to $400. Still more than what a solar home system costs – and in addition there will be monthly follow-up costs.
Once you are connected, the household budget is often merely sufficient to operate two or three lamps. But that ultimately does not matter, because the feeling to be connected to the potential for more is what really matters for people. Too bad that the power supply is very unreliable, often fails and therefore people often sit in the dark despite the grid connection.
Besides, we won’t be able to spare most people in developing countries the bitter truth that the hope for a network connection will never become a reality for them. Simply because the costs of connecting many remote regions are too high.

Good news
The good news for people in off-grid regions is that a technical alternative is available: full power access through solar-based off-grid solutions.
The disadvantage of this technically optimal alternative: it has the image of being only a kind of "first aid" since off-grid solar power is today predominantly marketed with small mini-systems, which consist either of mobile lamps or micro systems with 2-3 LED. This is of course better than nothing – and no household will resist taking this first help. But it is not enough to cope with the promise of the power grid that you can now (theoretically) have full power access, which allows an access to prosperity, development and a better life.
The bad thing: solar-based off-grid solutions could thoroughly provide this full power access! For the power requirements for lighting, refrigeration, entertainment, communication, economic and communal life no expensive power grid is needed. And in contrast to grid, this full power access would even be affordable without subsidies and also reliable.
Stand-alone solutions for developing countries have the image of being only a "first aid" not only for off-grid customers: also governments, investors, power companies, banks (in particular the World Bank and IFC) see the stand-alone technique more as a temporary solution. The large capital flows go to network-based technologies. At most, the micro-grid is still accepted as "little brother". And on the other hand, the fact that the few investment funds, used for stand-alone technologies, go only to micro systems (especially mobile hand lamps) and not to full power access, contributes to the stabilization of the negative image of being a "substitute".

Full power access without the grid
Maybe a change in this attitude that the grid or micro-grid provides the only solution for a modern power supply will come ultimately again from the technically developed countries: because in Europe solutions are increasingly being implemented to make households and businesses independent from the public power grid. Many people see in stand-alone systems, the future for a reliable and affordable energy supply in industrialized countries. The grid, with its large central power plants, is outdated technology of the 20th century. Independent, decentralized power supply units are the future.
The players in the off-grid industry in developing countries should rediscover and implement with more self-confidence the wish of their customer to get full power access. For, stand-alone solar technology offers to these people, far more than the old grid power technology, the chance of affordable and sustainable full power access. That would be – after the first wireless revolution with the spread of mobile phones – the second wireless revolution!
What a signal it would be if the wireless revolution in the power supply would come from the developing countries and not from the industrialized nations!

Harald Schützeichel is Founder/Director of Stiftung Solarenergie – Solar Energy Foundation and Founder/CEO of SunTransfer. 
Harald Schützeichel is Founder/Director of Stiftung Solarenergie – Solar Energy Foundation and Founder/CEO of SunTransfer. 

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