Enabling electricity access for all

According to the United Nations (UN), 840 million people in the world still do not have access to electricity, and most of them - around 580 million - live in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Solar panels in Kenya

The aim of SDG 7, one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030. Achieving this goal is essential, because it will play a key part in ensuring other SDGs will be met. For example, SDG 4, which is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, relies on people having access to affordable and reliable energy.

The UN has recognized energy as the cornerstone for economic development, facilitating poverty and hunger reduction efforts, improving healthcare, education and empowering women. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), estimates suggest that under a business-as-usual scenario around 600 million people in the world will still not have access to electricity by 2040.

To avoid such an outcome, the focus is very much on off-grid renewable energy solutions which, helped by IEC International Standards, can enable people to gain access at a relatively fast pace to energy in locations where there is no electricity network. The IEA estimates that to achieve the goal of universal electricity access, 70% of the rural areas that currently lack electricity will need to be connected using mini grid or off-grid solutions.

Over 1 000 IEC Standards facilitate energy generation, transmission and distribution as well as access. Several of these publications are specifically used for off-grid technologies which harness renewable energy in various ways. Off-grid electricity from renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind or hydro, also help populations to reduce usage of polluting diesel generators and potentially harmful kerosene lamps.

These solutions range from pico-solar lanterns, which enable people to keep businesses open in the evenings and children to do their homework after dark, to larger installations which help provide whole communities with lighting,  access to refrigeration for food preservation and water for drinking or field irrigation. Energy access thereby contributes to achieving several other SDGs, notably SDG 2, which is to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

Compact but extremely useful

Solar pico systems (SPS) use compact and lightweight solar panels to generate enough electricity to power low energy objects such as light emitting diode (LED) lamps or mobile phones. The most basic of these SPS is a solar pico-lantern and consists of three components: a solar panel, a rechargeable battery and a lamp. 

While most of the batteries used for these systems are still lead-acid, lithium-ion is making headway. Li-ion batteries weigh considerably less than their lead-acid counterparts: for the same weight, they have a much higher energy density (energy storage capacity). That means that they last longer and are more energy efficient.

IEC Technical Committee (TC) 21 prepares performance and safety standards for secondary cells and batteries, such as lead-acid, nickel metal-hydride or lithium-ion. This is important because heat is a factor in the performance of batteries – the higher the heat the lesser the battery’s lifespan. It also publishes a key standard for off-grid storage systems: IEC 61427-1 specifies general requirements and methods of test for off-grid applications and electricity generated by photovoltaic (PV) modules.

IEC TC 82 develops international PV standards for conversion of solar energy into electrical energy. It issues a series of technical specifications (TS) which make recommendations for small renewable hybrid systems for rural electrification. The IEC 62257 series has been recognized by the World Bank and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). SPS are covered by these standards.

Lighting Global Programme

IEC TS 62257-9-5 contains test methods that are used for evaluating off-grid solar products for solar modules up to 350 Watts. The methods were originally developed in 2008 through the joint programme Lighting Africa involving both public and private organizations as well as academia under the aegis of the International Finance Corporation and the World Bank. It combines quality standards with conformity assessment activities, which provide assurance that products are reliable and safe. The programme began with pilot activities in Kenya and Ghana. In 2013, the Lighting Asia programme was launched. Since then it has expanded and is now implemented as Lighting Global across Africa, Asia, the South Pacific Islands and Latin America. 

“IEC TS 62257-9-5 is regularly revised, with new editions published in 2016 and 2018. By the end of 2019, almost 42 million products that met the Lighting Global Quality criteria, based on testing to IEC TS 622257-9-5, have been sold worldwide, benefitting an estimated 52,4 million people,” says Arne Jacobson, Co-Convenor with Leon Drotsche of the joint working group which produces the standards. The TC is about to release a companion TS to this publication - IEC 62257-9-8 – which specifies the conditions that need to be fulfilled to pass the test methods described in IEC 62257-9-5.

SPS can accommodate various lighting technologies. Historically, they used compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). In recent years however, LED technology has overtaken CFL in terms of both durability (lighting hours) as well lighting efficiency (lumen/watt). IEC TC 34 has published performance and safety standards covering both CFL and LED lights, for example IEC 62031, a key safety standard for LEDs.

Mini grids for larger systems

The IEA estimates that by 2040, 140 million of the projected 315 million people living in rural Africa, will gain access to electricity, using 100 000 to 200 000 mini grids. A mini grid can be powered by generators, batteries, and/or renewable resources like solar panels or wind turbines. As the price of solar PV has come down, diesel generators are gradually falling out of favour, as they use polluting fuel to operate. They remain a back-up solution for many off-grid systems on the continent, however. But  several new mini grid projects across Sub-Saharan Africa are now powered by a combination of solar, hydro or wind energy and battery storage of energy.

In Ghana, for instance, the Ministry of Energy is driving off-grid deployment by firming up partnerships with other public offices and utilities such as Ghana’s Energy Commission and the Volta River Authority (VRA). The VRA is bringing five mini grid projects to the isolated lakeside and island communities along the Volta Lake.

IEC is helping with the appropriate standards. IEC TC 8 is developing standards which specify the design and management of distributed energy resources (DERs), including microgrids. IEC TC 57 is preparing a technical report, TR 61850-90-23, in collaboration with TC 8 / Subcommittee 8B. It complements the IEC 61850-7-420 Standard which addresses the integration of DERs into the grid.

Whether by installing mini grids, SPS or solar pico lanterns - electricity access is coming to remote and rural locations in the next decade and will be changing the lives of millions of people.