IEC promotes off-grid electricity access with new standard

Access to affordable and reliable energy is a basic need. Not only is it one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) established by the United Nations in its framework for building a better world by 2030, but also a vital tool for achieving all UN SDGs.

Smiling children sitting underneath a solar PV panel
Solar energy is used to help bring electricity to homes around the world

Yet, the World Bank estimates that over 700 million people worldwide lack access to electricity while a further 789 million people do not have reliable access to electricity. The IFC and the World Bank, both members of the World Bank Group, set up Lighting Global with the intention of bringing sustainable and affordable electricity to homes using off-grid renewable energy.

Since the establishment of Lighting Africa in 2009, the precursor to Lighting Global, the number of households without electricity has been reduced by over 400 million. Off-grid renewable energy solutions have become a critical component in helping homes access electricity and achieving the SDGs.

Using standards to foster energy access

Lighting Global established its Quality Assurance Framework and Quality Standards to ensure that products met minimum performance and safety requirements. In June, the Lighting Global Quality Standards became an official IEC Technical Specification known as IEC TS 62257-9-8.

IEC TS 62257-9-8 sets the baseline requirements for the quality, durability and advertising accuracy for stand-alone renewable energy products with the aim of protecting consumers. The evaluation of these requirements is based on the test methods defined in IEC TS 62257-9-5. Both of these publications are part of the IEC 62257 series which focus on rural electrification.

According to Chris Carlsen from Verasol, the newly launched quality-assurance programme, IEC 62257-9-8 and IEC 62257-9-5 are the two main pillars to the Quality Assurance Framework. “IEC 62257-9-5 provides the detailed instructions for carrying out product sampling and testing while IEC 62257-9-8 specifies the minimum criteria that a quality product must meet,” he said.

IEC 62257-9-8 is applicable to both pico-photovoltaic products, which include small, portable devices such as lanterns and flashlights, as well as solar home systems (SHS) which can be used for home lighting systems and certain appliances. Products must include: a) a battery or other storage device, b) a power generating device such as a solar panel that is capable of charging the battery and the necessary cables, and c) wiring and connectors required to connect the battery and energy generating device together.

Benefits of standardization

Following the maturation of the off-grid pico-solar market and in response to requests from national governments, Lighting Global submitted its Quality Standards to the IEC for standardization. IEC TS 62257-9-8 is expected to become the foundational standard for this market.

Arne Jacobson, Technical Lead for Lighting Global Quality Assurance, helped to shepherd the Lighting Global Quality Standards through the IEC standardization process as co-chair for the joint working group for off-grid photovoltaic (PV) systems within the IEC. He notes that "Adoption and publication of IEC 62257-9-8 will enable even more widespread implementation of these standards by national governments, development agencies, and the private sector, thereby contributing to a harmonized approach to quality assurance, safety, and consumer protection for this growing and dynamic sector".

Jacobson continued adding, “Because governments are familiar with the IEC, the adoption of the standards can enable more widespread and homogenized adoption of standards by many countries because governments trust IEC standards.”

Itotia Njagi, head of Lighting Global, concurs, “The Lighting Global team submitted the document to the IEC to facilitate a harmonized adoption of the standards by governments. Governments are very comfortable adopting IEC standards, so we knew that publication of our standards as IEC 62257-9-8 would enable widespread use across several countries and programmes benefitting millions of end-users of off-grid solar products and to the sector more broadly.”

As a result of standardization through the IEC, a few changes have been made to the initial specification regarding the requirements for performance reporting, ports and batteries as well as to health and safety.

Boosting an emerging market

Because the market for off-grid, renewable energy products is embryonic, international standards can provide a catalyst for building trust between manufacturers, consumers, and governments. They bring credibility to the technologies while also protecting consumers. Manufacturers benefit from harmonized regulations and a reduction in barriers to trade that allow them to enter new markets.

Greenlight Planet, one of the leading companies in the off-grid solar sector and its products have powered over five million homes.  According to its CEO and founder T. Patrick Walsh, “Internationally-recognized quality standards have been critical to the development of the off-grid solar sector over the past decade, allowing governments and end consumers alike to understand and trust this transformative new model for energy access”.

According to the Lighting Global Market Trends Report, the potential market for off-grid products remains strong. In the past ten years, the industry has become a USD 1,75 billion annual market serving 420 million people. And between 2017 and 2019, revenues grew 30 percent annually.

"The quality standards in IEC 62257-9-8 provide a foundation for quality, safety, and consumer protection in the off-grid solar market. Widespread implementation of these standards will help build consumer confidence and expand global adoption. More importantly, this will build investor confidence and increase the necessary investment for market growth," Itotia said. 

Demand for products will continue as efforts intensify to provide energy access to all households around the world. And while pico-PV products comprise the majority of stand-alone renewable energy products, the market share of solar home systems is growing and allowing households to power multiple LED lights, fans, television sets and small refrigerators. Innovative business models, such as pay-as-you-go financing, are increasing their market share and accounted for 24 percent of unit sales in the first half of 2019.

Achieving the SDGs

SDG 7 calls for access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030. Efforts by Lighting Global, together with its partners, have already enabled over 50 million people to meet their basic energy needs since 2009, made possible by the sale of 42 million products that meet the programme’s Quality Assurance Framework.

A translated version of this article in Chinese is available on the Lighting Global website.