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Decentralized energy systems for clean electricity access


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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Figure 1: The relationship between access to electricity and human development index (HDI) for 2000–2010.
Figure 2: The relationship between access to electricity and selected Millennium Development indices for 2000–2010.
Figure 3: Two centuries of historical trends and a potential future scenario from 1830 to 2030 for electricity access in the context of technology and supporting network events and trends.
Figure 4: Five views on the continuum of electricity access based on real-world system operations.
Figure 5: Sales of household off-grid systems as reported by organizations active in market-based distribution.
Figure 6: Results from a simple model of climate impacts and adoption dynamics for electricity and lighting technology in Kenya.


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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.

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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.

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Correspondence to Daniel M. Kammen.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Alstone, P., Gershenson, D. & Kammen, D. Decentralized energy systems for clean electricity access. Nature Clim Change 5, 305–314 (2015).

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