Science in Society Archive

Eradicating Rural Poverty with Renewable Energies

Renewables are providing affordable energy access for rural communities to get out of poverty while saving the climate Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Off-grid power to the people

Some 1.5 billion people worldwide have no access to electricity, and 2.6 billion rely on wood, straw, charcoal, or dung for cooking [1]. For lighting, households without electricity generally rely on kerosene lamps that are very inefficient. Communications is limited to radios powered by expensive dry cell batteries. Lack of access to energy is a major obstacle for rural development and the elimination of poverty.

Many rural areas in developing countries are not connected to the national grid, and connections may prove prohibitively costly; and this is where renewable energies are offering unprecedented opportunities for even the poorest rural communities.

Renewable energies are especially suited for decentralised off-grid power generation. In our comprehensive 2009 review ([2] Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050, I-SIS publication), we showed that a variety of truly green and affordable renewable energy options already exist, and more innovations are on the way. In both developed and developing countries, policies that promote innovations and stimulate internal market for decentralised distributed generation are the key to success. Global cooperation is crucial, developed nations have an international obligation to support developing nations to fight global warming with renewable energies. There is ample opportunity for developing nations to leapfrog to low carbon economies by improving energy efficiency, adopting organic agriculture, and installing affordable off-grid renewable power [3] (Green Growth for Developing Nations, SiS 46).

Our findings are borne out by the report of the Renewable Energy Network for the 21 Century released in July 2010 [1].

In even the remotest areas, many renewable energy sources such as photovoltaic (PV) household systems, solar pumps, micro-hydro powered mini-grids, and biogas from anaerobic digestion, can provide some access to modern energy services including lighting, communications, motive power, and heating and cooling. Small off-grid power capacities are particularly suitable for operating new, and ever improving electronic devices such as light emitting diodes (LED lighting), mobile phones, computers, etc. that work well with low power supply, and also require much less maintenance. But do keep abreast on the safety of the range of new nano-materials that are going into these electronic devices and solar panels (see [4] Nanotoxicity in Regulatory Vacuum, SiS 46).

Solar homes for the masses

During the past eight years in Bangladesh, close to half a million solar home systems have been installed, mostly between 50 and 75 Watts-peak, and a new programme aims to expand this to 1.3 million by 2012 [1]. Early this century, the government and donors established a rural energy fund that has enabled a group of 16 participating sales and service companies to install about half a million systems. A key part of this programme is to ensure that the systems meet high quality standards, and to provide guarantees for the technology and after-sales service. Participants include Grameen Shakti and several other microfinance organizations (for more details see [5] (Grameen Shakti for Renewable Energies, SiS 49).

Another successful programme is Sri Lanka’s Renewable Energy for Rural Economic Development Project, which also employs consumer credit and a network of microfinance institutions and solar companies. Through their dealer networks, solar companies sell solar home systems and offer operation and maintenance services. The business model is based on a memorandum of understanding between the microfinance institution and the solar company, key features of which are a buy-back scheme and identification of the consumer-service responsibilities of the two parties.

Under this model, the Sarvodaya Economic Enterprises Development Services—the project’s key partner in solar home system financing and a recognized leader in off-grid energy services din remote rural areas—financed more than 70 000 systems between 2002-2006.

Under China’s Renewable Energy Development project that ended in mid-2008, more than 400 000 solar home systems were sold in northwestern China, most of them to herders who transported the systems on the backs of their animals as they moved to new pastures.

India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy estimated that by 2009, close to 500 000 solar home systems and 700 000 solar lanterns had been purchased nationwide. In Sri Lanka, some 60 000 systems had been purchased by 2007, most of them during the last decade.

In Africa, the rise in solar home systems has been slow. But by 2007, the continent still had more than 500 000 systems in use, with over half of these in Kenya and South Africa. In 2005, Kenya was home to just over 150 000 solar systems with a median size of 25 watts; coverage has since reached some 300 000 households.

Similar to household lighting, communications require a small amount of power that is easily provided by solar household systems. In China, the main use of larger 50-watt solar household systems, after lighting, is for viewing television; and retailers actually market equipment for this purpose.

Many battery systems in developing countries are used extensively for television viewing, and more recently, mobile phone charging has been added as an option as communication towers become available.

In India today there are approximately 7 000 solar-powered pumps for irrigation.

Greener biomass stoves

A new generation of improved biomass stoves is being manufactured, sometimes backed by large international companies [1]. These stoves are durable and will last for 5 to 10 years or even longer, and many are sold with guarantees.

There is large market potential for biomass stoves in developing countries. The goal is to improve the energy efficiency of cooking, reduce indoor air pollution, and save labour or cash expenses for the poorest.

The World Health Organization and United Nations Development Programme recently surveyed 140 countries with a combined population of 3 billion people who rely on solid biomass fuels such as wood, straw, dung, and coal for cooking. The survey found 830 million people (just under one-third) using improved stoves for cooking (defined as a closed stove with a chimney or an open fire with a hood). This amounts to about 166 million households, including 116 million in China, more than 13 million in the rest of East Asia, 20 million in South Asia, 7 million in sub-Saharan Africa, and over 8 million in Latin America.

Biogas for the millions

Biogas is an even better option in providing clean fuel that can also generate electricity, and at the same time, reduce environmental pollution, improve sanitation and recycle nutrients and water for agriculture.

China has been most active in providing biogas for rural households in successive programmes since 2000, and has an estimated 40 million biogas systems by the end of 2010 (see detailed case study [6] Biogas for China's New Socialist Countryside, SiS 49). 

Elsewhere, biogas digesters are also being widely installed [1]. India is home to some 4 million systems, according to recent figures from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. Vietnam has more than 150 000 systems. And Nepal’s Biogas Support Programme, which involves the participation of the private sector, microfinance organizations, community groups, and non-governmental organizations, has resulted in a steady increase in biogas systems during the last decade, with close to 200 000 adopted.

Diversification and integration

In the early days of China’s rural electrification programme, both small- and micro-hydro systems were promoted to provide energy self-sufficiency to isolated local communities. But today, as the country’s electricity grid expands, many small-hydro stations now provide power to the grid system. As of 2007, some 50 GW of small hydro was installed in China, only about 3 GW of which was not connected to the existing grid system.

The trend has been to integrate both electricity grid extensions and off-grid renewable energy into one project. Renewable household systems, improved biomass stoves, and village or community small grids systems can all be serviced by the same financing agency. In practice, many of these funds initially specialize in a single technology, such as solar home systems, but increasingly they are expanding to other renewable energy systems as well as to non-renewable energy access.

IDCOL, the Bangladesh government’s Infrastructure Development Company Ltd., manages a rural energy fund that has been successful in promoting nearly 500 000 solar home systems and is now expanding into other services such as biogas and improved biomass stoves (see [5]).

In Tanzania, a new $25 million program for off-grid rural electrification has been established and is now being implemented.

Article first published 24/11/10


  1. Renewables 2010 Global Status Report,
  2. Ho MW, Cherry B, Burcher S and Saunders PT. Green Energies, 100 % Renewables by 2010, ISIS/TWN, London, Penang, 2009,
  3. Ho MW. Green growth for developing nations. Science in Society 46, 18-20, 2010.
  4. Ho MW. Nanotoxicity in a regulatory vacuum. Science in Society 46, 38-41, 2010.
  5. Ho MW. Grameen Shakti for renewable energies. Science in Society 49.
  6. Ho MW. Biogas for China’s New Socialist Countryside. Science in Society 49.

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There are 2 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Denise Martin Comment left 26th November 2010 19:07:29
Great article. Nicely done. Thanks. I personally believe that food and water are the manna that sustains us. If you want to get "Sustainable", get "Off the grid," get healthier or more "Plugged In" you grow your own frequency/food. We are what we eat. Family size greenhouse dome/gardens are perfect to get our global population back to the soil and lovingly hovered over their own food supply again.

Maureen Childs Comment left 25th November 2010 04:04:51
I would like to contact Solar Panel suppliers in Bulgaria. Whilst there are many supplying solar panels for heating water I would like to install solar panels for supplying electricity to a local network. I have land in Kableshkovo, Kaminar and Bata all within 15km of the Black Sea Coast. Please advise.