What’s Holding Back Off-Grid Solar – And How the Energy Access Sector Can Turn Things Around
From economic empowerment to improved health, access to clean, reliable energy technologies can transform many spheres of life. In remote communities that lack basic infrastructure, off-grid solar technologies can deliver light, warm water, clean cooking and other energy services to households. Now, countries are increasingly looking to off-grid energy technologies to make low and middle-income countries resilient to global crises such as COVID-19. For example, replacing just one kerosene light with a solar powered lantern at a health facility can help nurses and doctors treat patients safely when night falls. Additionally, off-grid solar is widely seen as critical to reaching the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 7, ensuring access to “affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” by 2030.
The burgeoning off-grid solar energy sector has become a $1.75 billion annual market, reaching 420 million users over the past decade. Despite this growth, over a third of the world’s population – roughly 2.8 billion people – have yet to gain access to clean cooking, and 789 million people still lack access to electricity. If business in the energy access sector continues as usual, we will fail to meet SDG7’s energy access targets by 2030. So what’s keeping us from powering households with off-grid solar at the required rate? Could there be a disconnect between what we “know” about how the enabling environment of regulations, finance, cultures and norms enables solar technology adoption, and what energy access businesses “do” to break down practical barriers between the products and end-users? In 2018, we sought to fill this “know-do” gap for the Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative by identifying and analyzing the contextual factors that serve as enablers or barriers to the uptake of solar technologies.
We conducted a systematic literature review to illustrate the enabling environment for off-grid solar uptake in low and middle-income countries. (Note: The link leads to a slightly older version of the review, shared in the public domain, which does not include more recent papers that are considered in this article.) After meticulously screening an initial 6,000 papers for relevance and quality, we were left with about 60 research papers from across the world, representing a diverse array of household solar technologies.
Together, these studies explore a constellation of financial, market, programmatic and regulatory factors which can enable or dampen household solar adoption.
Despite the declining cost of off-grid solar technologies, unsurprisingly, most of these papers confirm that the upfront cost of the technologies is a major barrier. Naturally then, enabling factors such as financing options, loans and banking infrastructure can help overcome this constraint. Below, we’ll focus on some of the other barriers to adoption, and the elements of the off-grid solar market ecosystem that can impact them.
Barriers to Off-Grid Solar Adoption
Poor product quality is a major barrier (mentioned by over 60% of the studies) because it can induce negative ripple effects on adoption as it sparks consumer distrust. A majority of off-grid product sales rely on word-of-mouth distribution, the success of which is dependent upon consumer satisfaction and trust. For example, in a study about a solar hot water heater program in South Africa, over a third of households interviewed had to turn off their heater due to excessive water leakage. Quality standards and certifications, such as the Lighting Global quality standard, can help to protect consumers from junk products.
Over half the papers show that sociocultural factors (e.g., consumers tastes and preferences) have an impact on household solar adoption. Off-grid solar technologies must align with the local context, for example by relying on local trust networks and peer effects to disseminate products.
In light of these consumer tendencies, marketing and promotion can help connect the product to the preferences, as suggested by almost a third of the papers. Because off-grid solar is competing with ingrained alternatives such as kerosene lanterns and traditional cooking stoves, marketing strategies need to convince consumers that a given product will be better. In addition, because consumers might not know how to use these new products, promotional programs must focus on technical literacy.
Lastly, over a third of the papers also mention the influence of distribution networks and supply-side problems. While the 2020 Global Off-Grid Solar Market Trends Report states that global demand for off-grid solar products remains high, fragmented supply chains and a lack of last-mile distribution networks can make it difficult to meet this demand in the hardest-to-reach places. Furthermore, the solar supply chain is precarious due to its dependence on one large single manufacturing player, China. For example, the solar supply chain has recently experienced massive disruptions due to COVID-19’s impact on Chinese manufacturers.
How Researchers Can Help Off-Grid Solar Realize its Potential
Thus far, we have learned that the key factors making up the off-grid solar market ecosystem are incredibly context-dependent, and what practitioners and policymakers “do” on the ground does not necessarily draw on what researchers “know” through careful study. On the flip side, the research community hasn’t kept pace with the “doers” who are working more directly with solar customers. So how can researchers worldwide help realize the promise of off-grid solar?
First, to repeat what has been said in other sectors for decades now, despite all the challenges and differing incentives, we must strive for more genuine collaboration between researchers and practitioners (enabled by policymakers and donors). Both sides must yield ground. For example, researchers should focus on creatively adapting their evidentiary standards and time-consuming data and research methods to produce quicker insights that are more readily usable by practitioners. Similarly, practitioners could support these efforts by inviting researchers to work in and around their projects, driving the collection of useful data.
More fundamentally, a paradigm shift is needed. While organizations such as 60 Decibels and Acumen are working towards making insightful evaluations more affordable and accessible to the solar sector, more is needed. It is imperative that independent, qualified researchers ensure that the learning processes retain a certain level of integrity and rigor. Because many contextual factors matter, local researchers, or those who have significant life experience in a given community, must engage with in-country partners delivering off-grid solar. However, they can only be effective if they have better access to relevant data, are trained in relevant methods and are active in larger research networks (both to learn new methods and communicate their findings). Global “collaboratories” like the Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative are founded on this basic principle that local researchers, practitioners and policymakers can work together to help tackle local problems.
We examined the gap between what we “know” about how the enabling environment of regulations, finance, cultures and norms enables solar technology adoption, and what energy access businesses “do” to break down practical barriers between the products and end-users. We recommend that energy access stakeholders bridge this researcher/practitioner gap to ensure that the sector is utilizing current, actionable, locally relevant data to inform ongoing efforts on the ground. Strengthening these connections could be key to increasing the uptake of solar technologies in remote communities, and accelerating progress toward affordable, sustainable energy access around the world.
Hannah Girardeau is an Energy Associate at Sustainable Energy for All, Subhrendu Pattanayak is a Professor of Environmental & Energy Policy at Duke University, and Alicia Oberholzer is an Impact Associate at Solar Sister and a Research Assistant at the Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative.
Photo courtesy of DFID.