Africa is home to some of the fastest-growing economies on the planet, with an expected growth rate of 4.5 percent in 2015 and 5 percent in 2016. But the lack of affordable, reliable energy could challenge continued economic and social development.

Because Africa’s population and economic growth are outpacing electrification efforts, the number of people without access to electricity is expected to grow from 585 million to 645 million by 2030; that’s more than twice the current population of the United States simply left behind.

The conventional approach to electrification on the continent mainly seeks to expand access to the centralized grid, and that will not be enough. The International Energy Agency estimates that in Africa, nearly half of the 315 million people who live in rural areas will depend on off-grid solutions, like mini-grids, to close the electricity gap, while a quarter of those who live in the remote rural areas will rely on smaller, stand-alone solutions like solar home systems for first-time energy access.

To achieve universal energy access by 2030, Africa needs an integrated approach that expands the grid while massively scaling up distributed generation (DG) – modular systems that generate power close to where it is used. These include stand-alone systems, as well as mini-grids, which may be off-grid or grid connected.

Reaching Sustainable Development Goals through Distributed Generation

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), just adopted at the United Nations, acknowledge this growing energy gap in goal number 7, which sets a target of universal access to affordable, reliable, modern energy services within the next 15 years. These new goals – which aim to eradicate extreme poverty in an environmentally sustainable way – emphasize the role of energy access as a means to that end. The SDGs also stress the importance of empowering and fully engaging civil society, the private sector, and – most importantly – the energy users themselves in developing energy access solutions.

WRI, WWF and Prayas Energy Group have developed a new resource, 10 Questions to Ask about Distributed Generation, which can serve as a valuable tool for countries seeking to tap into distributed energy sources to provide access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy. The tool has been designed to assist stakeholders to better understand and make meaningful contributions to the energy planning processes in ways that will significantly impact the effectiveness of energy access initiatives and produce tangible development impacts.

Distributed Generation Can Play a Role

With the cost of renewable energy technologies continuing to decline, and with the DG market witnessing truly transformational innovations – such as mobile money-enabled pay-as-you-go business models – the market opportunity in Africa is tremendous. Yet, the use of DG is still limited in Africa; energy service providers are faced with significant challenges as they try to scale their impact. How do service providers better tailor their services to the needs of the households, businesses and communities that they are trying to serve? How do they ensure the provision of high quality energy services at affordable prices? How does the regulatory and planning environment impact the cost of energy services? How does the regulatory and planning process allow for smooth integration of distributed generation services into the grid?

The complexity of these challenges means that a wide network of actors must be engaged to collectively define energy needs and manage cost-effective and sustainable energy solutions. Decision-makers and planners, as well as civil society groups, development partners and investors, must not only more fully appreciate the contribution DG can make towards achieving energy objectives, but must also work together to create a supportive framework for its rapid expansion and integration into national energy plans.

This tool can be used to facilitate effective communication between stakeholders, discover knowledge gaps and develop collaborative research agendas. In the coming months, the tool will be put to use in Africa, where WWF and WRI are partnering to ensure that civil society, energy service providers, and other relevant stakeholders have a seat at the table to improve energy planning and program implementation. Through its local country offices in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, WWF is developing networks and Sustainable Energy Forums. Through these structures, the 10 Questions to Ask about Distributed Generation will be used to help diverse constituencies work through complex, multifaceted and in some cases, divisive issues around priority setting and planning for energy access.

This framework will be a valuable tool as countries begin to pursue Sustainable Development Goal number 7 and move towards implementing Sustainable Energy for All country action agendas as well as national, district and local energy plans.

The 10 Questions to Ask about Distributed Generation is part of a 4 part WRI’s 10 Questions series.