Perspective

Decentralized energy systems for clean electricity access

  • Nature Climate Change volume 5, pages 305314 (2015)
  • doi:10.1038/nclimate2512
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Abstract

Innovative approaches are needed to address the needs of the 1.3 billion people lacking electricity, while simultaneously transitioning to a decarbonized energy system. With particular focus on the energy needs of the underserved, we present an analytic and conceptual framework that clarifies the heterogeneous continuum of centralized on-grid electricity, autonomous mini- or community grids, and distributed, individual energy services. A historical analysis shows that the present day is a unique moment in the history of electrification where decentralized energy networks are rapidly spreading, based on super-efficient end-use appliances and low-cost photovoltaics. We document how this evolution is supported by critical and widely available information technologies, particularly mobile phones and virtual financial services. These disruptive technology systems can rapidly increase access to basic electricity services and directly inform the emerging Sustainable Development Goals for quality of life, while simultaneously driving action towards low-carbon, Earth-sustaining, inclusive energy systems.

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Acknowledgements

P.A. was supported by the EPA STAR graduate fellowship, D.G. by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, and all were supported by NSF grant SMA-1338539, Information–Energy Nexus Research Network. We acknowledge the valuable contributions of data from the Lighting Africa programme (where P.A. is also a contributor), the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, and multiple institutions and organizations that publicly share the critical data on energy systems that we assembled in this work. We are grateful for discussions on super-efficient appliances with A. Jacobson, A. Phadke and others at Humboldt State and LBNL. Thanks to N. Bryant, M. Mumbi, and D. Mugo for collaborating on fieldwork that informs our discussion of ICT and energy. This work benefited greatly from feedback provided by participants in seminars at UC Berkeley and from the comments of three anonymous reviewers.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Energy and Resources Group, 310 Barrows Hall, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • Peter Alstone
    • , Dimitry Gershenson
    •  & Daniel M. Kammen
  2. Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • Peter Alstone
    • , Dimitry Gershenson
    •  & Daniel M. Kammen
  3. Goldman School of Public Policy, 2607 Hearst Avenue, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • Daniel M. Kammen

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Contributions

P.A., D.G. and D.M.K. conceived the work. P.A. designed and implemented the analysis and was lead author. D.G. and D.M.K. contributed to the analysis and writing.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Daniel M. Kammen.

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    Supplementary Information

    Decentralized energy systems for clean electricity access