Off-grid energy quietly expands its global impact

Climate Voices

Off-grid energy quietly expands its global impact

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A new global study reveals vast opportunities in small, proven technologies

Off-grid energy is making a huge difference in the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world, and the fast-growing emerging renewable power sector has new data to prove it.

At 60 Decibels, an impact measurement company, we recently published Why Off-Grid Energy Matters 2024, which we believe is the world’s most comprehensive impact assessment of the off-grid sector.

We found that 93 percent of the 79,000 people in more than 30 developing countries interviewed said that acquiring off-grid products improved their quality of life. Sixty-four percent, for example, said a simple solar lamp brought “a significant change to their wellbeing, while 62 percent told us that a new solar home system also had a positive effect.

The survey results reflect the sentiment that is fueling interest in small-scale, off-grid renewable energy. According to the World Bank, the off-grid solar industry has grown into a $1.75 billion annual market, providing lighting and other energy services to 420 million users, saving time and money, and reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Understanding how to best increase off-grid product adoption is also critical if we are to accelerate improved energy access to nearly ten percent of the world’s eight billion who still lack reliable sources of power.

“We are now in a state of immense joy because the light has come to chase away the darkness in our lives.”

“We are now in a state of immense joy because the light has come to chase away the darkness in our lives,” a 50-year old man in Togo, told interviewers. “Before I had the solar kit, I had to pay twice a week to have my phone battery recharged by people 3 kilometers from my house.”

Source: 60 Decibels

While government, finance, and energy leaders debate the best next steps in greening the global energy system, the study reminds us that small, available solutions can be highly effective.

“Once again, the small but mighty solar lantern stands out as a pound-for-pound champion,” the 60 Decibels report said, “despite sometimes costing as little as $5.”

Solar power kits that can include a solar blanket or panel with energy storage and clean cookstoves, water pumps, and other appliances also showed positive, sometimes even transformative, impact.

A new solar home system “improved the quality of life for me and my family, plus the installation was very practical and fast,” a 32-year-old woman from Mexico said. “The security that I feel with my children gives me peace of mind because, with the illumination of the panels, I don’t have to worry about having an accident at home.”

Small, available solutions can be highly effective.

The survey of 79,000 off-grid customers – far more than the number interviewed in previous studies – offers policymakers and investors additional insights, for example, that: 

  • Locally owned organizations tend to have a higher impact on poverty, greater benefits for women, and greater ease of use and satisfaction than non-local organizations. 
  • Women-led enterprises also engage women more successfully, have greater impact on lives, and lower rates of customer over-indebtedness and challenges using off-grid resources.
  • Notably, a substantial third of customers experienced challenges using their energy product or service, meaning they couldn’t unlock the many benefits of improved energy access. The four most common challenges were technical faults, mismatched expectations, misuse, and external factors (theft, weather, etc.).

Why should climate investors care?

The study’s findings that local and women-led enterprises result in greater satisfaction and ease of use, as well as lower customer challenges and over-indebtedness, can help policymakers and financiers optimize their investments.

However, the findings also explain why impact analysis isn’t fully complete if it measures only positive impact. Understanding how and why many people are not able to experience a positive impact helps identify policy, product, or investment gaps – as well as opportunities. 

As 2024 brings new record high global temperatures, and experts step up calls to decarbonize, restore health to our food, land and water, and build climate-resiliency, social impact data from authoritative studies can help investors and policymakers improve strategies, impact and returns.

As this 60 Decibels data reveals, major opportunities to address the human, economic, and political impacts of climate change can be found not just in the new technologies that venture capital tends to focus on but also—and even more so—in the greater global adoption of small, well-known, and highly effective technologies and practices that transform lives.

Related reading:

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To solve the climate crisis, go global – and bottom up

Featured photo: SunCulture customer using their solar-powered irrigation system in Kenya. Source: SunCulture

Written by

Kat Harrison

Kat Harrison leads energy work at 60 Decibels, a company specializing in social impact measurement, performance benchmarks, and customer insights. She developed the first impact benchmark, for the fast-developing, off-grid power sector that now includes more than 140 companies in over 30 countries. Kat also led development of the industry’s first Standardized Impact Metrics for the Off-Grid Solar Energy Sector, a foundational data source for IRENA, IFC, World Bank and other organizations.