Living in the U.S., it is hard to imagine a life without reliable and unlimited access to affordable electricity. Globally, however, 1.3 billion people – four times the population of the U.S. – lack this basic resource. Simply scaling up the energy supply with conventional coal, diesel and gas plants – the mainstay of the electricity system worldwide today – would be really expensive. In addition, building enough large fossil fuel power plants or hydroelectric megadams to distribute electricity to every single one of these people would be very unhealthy for people and the environment. However, this does not mean they are doomed to houses lit by candles and smoky paraffin lamps. (Just imagine writing your homework under the light of a kerosene lamp as a poor Kenyan student might be forced to do.)
Our research produced a vision of the future where every person on the planet has access to at least basic electricity. What we see in the field is a revolution where small family-scale energy systems that provide lighting, cell-phone charging, televisions, and refrigerators all powered by solar cells is changing the way that energy is accessed. Electrical power can now be produced for people off the grid by rooftop or backyard solar, or by a small power station in their neighborhood, or by a large power station somewhere far away and delivered via the grid.
The change is not only in the source of energy but in the business model, too. A rural family in Kenya can now pay their electrical bill using a mobile phone and an online payment system. With electric lights to study, students in rural Kenya (and elsewhere) have a better opportunity to graduate from school. Never in history have we had so many choices about where to get our electricity and how to pay for it. Solar panel prices have been rapidly declining over the past 20 years. Modern, efficient electrical appliances only require a fraction of the energy old ones did. (Ever seen those 100 W incandescent light bulbs? Yeah, nobody uses them anymore. They switched to 10 W LED light bulbs a long time ago.