Overline: Pandemic
Headline: Realising the Transformative Potential of Decentralised Renewable Energy in Emergency Response

Off-grid solar energy is a key player to  address health emergencies in the global south and to achieve a sustainable recovery.
Off-grid solar energy is a key player to address health emergencies in the global south and to achieve a sustainable recovery. Shutterstock/greenaperture

The vital role of electrification in emergency response has become strikingly clear during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Electricity is indispensable for the effective operation of healthcare facilities and the provision of health services, the timely diffusion of information, and undisrupted communications at a time when social isolation measures are in place. Access to electrification also makes it easier to carry out important household activities and follow essential hygiene recommendations. The pandemic has therefore served as a reminder of the vulnerability of the 860 million people who have no access to electricity, most of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Over the past few months there have been many appeals  from the development community to prioritise access to electrification, and energy in general, in the response to the pandemic. These appeals have often emphasised the important role that the decentralised renewable energy sector can play in providing electricity to populations beyond the grid with significant environmental benefits. Indeed, a number of initiatives, by the World Bank, Sustainable Energy for All, Power Africa/USAID and others, have been put in place to promote the use of decentralised renewable energy to electrify health facilities and to support decentralised renewable energy companies and their clients, which are currently facing serious challenges due to the pandemic. In addition, a number of governments, including Kenya, India and Nigeria, have declared off-grid renewable energy an essential service. Although more support will be needed in the coming months, this is already a significant development.

It is encouraging to see that the decentralised renewable energy sector is increasingly being recognised as a key player in efforts to meet the energy needs of critical infrastructure and communities during emergencies. Involving this sector in emergency response can also have long-lasting impacts, helping countries achieve a sustainable recovery, reach their energy access goals in the coming years, and become more resilient to future epidemics and other natural disasters. To realise a transformative impact, it is not enough to secure the necessary financial assistance and governmental support. Interventions also need to be designed to be sustainable in the long run.

Barriers to long-term sustainability

A common problem that arises when responding to emergencies is the inevitable tension between market-led and humanitarian efforts and between the short-term objectives of emergency relief and the long-term objectives of development. This trade-off also applies when choices have to be made in order to meet pressing electrification needs in an emergency. For example, in many humanitarian settings, unsustainable solutions like generators are often chosen over off-grid renewable energy solutions due to the high upfront costs of the latter and the often longer installation times required.

And even when off-grid renewable energy solutions are chosen, success is not automatically guaranteed. On the contrary, renewable off-grid projects are by no means immune to failure. Potential problems include: technology failure, poor system maintenance, lack of availability of replacements, poorly designed systems that don’t meet user needs, and poorly designed tariffs that fail to cover operating costs or take the financial constraints of users into consideration. Careful planning and a profound knowledge of the local context are required to address these issues. In the case of emergency response, it is tempting to hand out systems without carefully considering the long-term implications. But this only exacerbates the above problems, undermining the reputation of the decentralised renewable energy sector and limiting the transformative impact of the response.

Although it is not always possible to reconcile conflicting priorities, there are effective ways to factor in long-term sustainability considerations.

Engaging the local decentralised renewable energy sector

Involving the local decentralised renewable energy sector speeds up the installation process. This is also the most effective way to support the local decentralised renewable energy sector at a critical time. Moreover, the experience, knowledge, and networks of local companies can prove invaluable for the design of sustainable interventions. Finally, the resources of the local decentralised renewable energy sector can also be leveraged for other aspects of the response (e.g. information sharing, transportation of goods, and data collection).

In instances where the local decentralised renewable energy sector cannot meet pressing needs in an emergency, imported pre-manufactured solutions can be a viable alternative. Another option is to install generators as an emergency response and transform them into solar-hybrid systems at a later stage. In any case, the chosen systems should adhere to internationally recognised quality standards.

The need for long-term strategies

It is also important to have a long-term strategy for the use of installed systems, including those installed to support temporary emergency infrastructure. Such systems can later be redesigned to serve communities or local industry. The profile of potential future clients should therefore be considered when making location choices.

In the case of all interventions, general best practice guidelines should be followed. This encompasses user training, stakeholder consultation, guarantees and after-sales service options. It also entails the careful design of tariffs, management systems, and delivery models to ensure effective system maintenance and revenue collection.

Timely access to information

Finally, in order to engage the decentralised renewable energy sector in emergency response and ensure projects that are sustainable in the long-term, it’s important to identify the energy needs of critical infrastructure and communities and the potential for renewable energy development. Socio-economic information and data on current energy expenditures are also needed to design demand-driven approaches. Acquiring all of this information is not easy and requires detailed needs assessments, which can be costly and time-consuming.

One solution is to combine earth observation satellite data with other data from different sources (e.g. drones, GPS trackers, mobile devices and surveys) to map relevant energy information (e.g. availability and quality of grid and off-grid energy, availability of sunlight, availability of equipment and their power requirements, and information on local energy players). This solution has been widely adopted in recent emergencies, including epidemics, to map important information and coordinate the response and recovery more effectively. Examples can be found in the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap.

To enhance the energy component of humanitarian mapping we can build on pre-existing work in other sectors (e.g. health) and on the few energy mapping projects already in place. These have mainly been developed to identify market opportunities and inform policymaking, but initiatives are already under way to facilitate the introduction of energy access considerations in the response to Covid-19.


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