How We Can Electrify the World by 2030

January 2019

While great strides have been made in the past decade, over a billion people — one-seventh of the world’s population — still do not have access to electricity. And for hundreds of millions more, electricity is unreliable, unhealthy, inadequate and/or expensive.

As part of the United Nations Paris Agreement, many developed countries have committed to significantly reduce their use of carbon-dioxide-emitting energy sources. At the same time, these countries signed on to support the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Program that seeks to improve the quality of life worldwide by ensuring “affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”

How can these divergent goals be reconciled? One answer is to increase use of renewable-energy resources to meet the world’s unmet and under-met needs for electricity.

Data from the World Energy Outlook’s 2017 Special Report indicates that in 2000, 1.7 billion people lacked access to electricity. The report notes that while this number dropped to 1.1 billion by 2016, the “vast majority of new connections are being provided through fossil-fuel extensions of the electric grid,” with less than 1 percent of these people gaining access to electricity through more self-sustaining, off-the-grid systems.

The 2017 report goes on to say that between now and 2030, renewable energy — especially solar energy — will replace fossil fuels as the primary source for new electricity connections. “The rapidly declining costs of solar photovoltaics, battery technologies and energy-efficient appliances are making renewable energy systems more affordable. This is particularly true for rural and dispersed communities not served by a main grid and where it may take years for one to arrive. Decentralized systems are also critical for areas with electric grid access but an unreliable power supply.”

A number of renewable-energy projects are underway to better electrify the world. For example, large solar arrays are being developed across northern Africa that could eventually replace much of the fossil-fuel-based electricity via underwater transmission cables linking the Sahara to Europe. Other large-scale solar desert-based projects are underway in Saudi Arabia, China and the southwestern U.S.

Wind turbines are still cheaper than solar panels in many situations and will continue to be a critical part of any future mix of renewable-energy sources.

Both solar and wind must be supplemented by other sources of energy and energy-storage systems, but lithium ion batteries and other means of electricity storage are becoming an increasingly cost-effective way to expand the use of renewable energy at every level, from individual buildings to power plants.

In projecting future expansion of access to electricity, the 2017 report lays out an “energy-for-all” scenario. Figuring in population growth, the goal of universal electrification by 2030 would mean expanding electrical coverage to 1.3 billion people at an approximate cost of $800 billion. The report concludes that over 50 percent of this electricity would be powered by solar energy and less than 25 percent by fossil fuels.

Many people without access to electricity live in remote areas that are not easily connected to major power grids. As a result, large-scale renewable options are unfeasible because of the high cost of transmission lines. Instead, clusters of homes and businesses at the village level can be most economically and efficiently served by electricity generated right in the community. The report predicts that more than 60 percent of new electrical energy will be generated by mini-grid and off-grid systems.

Two recent examples of successful community-solar programs are in the nations of Liberia and India. Over the past year, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and Bandera Electric Cooperative of Texas have helped a village in rural Liberia organize their own co-op and install solar panels, a battery- storage unit and other equipment. NRECA is working with 12 more Liberian coastal villages to expand this community solar model.

When Narendra Modi became India’s Prime Minister in 2014, he promised to electrify the entire nation. Every village in India now has at least partial access to electricity, but 30 million households remain without it. President Modi promises to electrify these remaining households by April 2019 through a combination of solar microgrids as well as hooking them up to the national grid. Many communities are forming Village Electric Committees to oversee the operation of these solar facilities.

Achieving universal access to electricity by 2030 will not only create millions of job opportunities, but also prevent nearly 2 million premature deaths each year caused by polluted air in households using primitive means to generate electricity. Reducing the use of kerosene, firewood and other biomass fuels for cooking, heat and light will also contribute to the U.N.’s goal of significantly reducing carbon-dioxide emissions.

Source: The Cooperative Society Project,