What do we really mean when we talk about energy leapfrogging?

It is now widely known that the sub-Saharan African power sector is at a threshold of significant change. There is growing consensus that the centralised model of electrification through national grid extension is becoming outdated in a techno-economic sense. In fact, the 634 million-large non-electrified population is an account of the inefficiencies inherent in the conventional centralised model. Decentralisation of electricity generation and distribution is now often seen as a viable alternative, which has placed decentralised renewable energy technologies, comprised of stand-alone off-grid systems (primarily solar home systems) and mini-grids in the limelight.

Solar home systems have however gained much more traction than mini-grids over the past few years. This is primarily because of less complexity in deployment and better financial returns on offer. The result is a flood of investments entering the solar home system market, which in turn drives down costs and makes these technologies more accessible for the end user.

However, I am hesitant to rally behind this movement and will be careful of putting solar home systems under the mantra of leapfrogging as is often done. Technology leapfrogging is defined as the “adoption of advanced or state-of-the-art technology in an application area where immediate prior technology has not been adopted.”ii The premise is that industrialising countries can avoid the carbon and resource intensive and wasteful energy development path that industrialised countries went through in setting up their energy infrastructure over the course of the past centuryiii. Solar home systems are commonly described as a leapfrog solution, which implies that by deploying these technologies, industrialising countries can embark on a process of electrification that is carbon neutral, resource efficient and sustainable. This is all true, but the quality of energy services that solar home systems provide to the end user is often overlooked in the leapfrogging discussion.

In my view, the output of solar home systems is not on par with the level required to allow energy poor households to well and truly move out of energy poverty. As Figure 1 shows, average household consumption of electricity in the industrialised (and industrialising) world is well above the approximate output level that solar home systems in the low-income market can provide. Furthermore, early experiences with solar home systems also indicate the aspiration among households to own higher wattage appliances after the initial basic energy needs have been met with solar home systemsiv. That goes to say that solar home systems are very effective in providing access to basic modern energy services, but access to basic modern energy services in the decentralised way as described here does not constitute energy leapfrogging. Instead, it entails a step up the energy ladder. The crux of the matter is that we should be weary of confusing energy leapfrogging with stepping up the energy ladder.

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Figure 1: Output limitations of solar home systems
Source: PowerGen Renewable Energy (2016)i

If we are to bring about energy leapfrogging in Africa, we need a technology that can replace the national grid. Mini-grids, alternatively, can replace the grid because it provides the kind of energy services that are on par with the gridv. By providing grid-quality, alternating current electricity, mini-grids have the potential to well and truly move the energy poor out of energy poverty and in turn socio-economic poverty. It can do this by not only powering all household applications, but also by electrifying productive activities such as welding, milling, food processing, heating and many others. This is what businesses require to be electrified and I believe that this is an antecedent for localised economic development. Further, localised economic development in rural areas can slow down urbanisation because rural inhabitants will perceive more economic opportunity in rural areas.

Finally, energy leapfrogging does not merely entail developing energy infrastructure differently than industrialised nations have done. Granted, by building energy infrastructure with solar home systems, we are avoiding the negative consequences of a carbon and resource intensive fossil fuel-based national grid. However, by doing so, we will not converge with the future energy infrastructure of the world. That is because the future energy infrastructure consistently points to the development of smart grids powered by renewable energy and we will not be able to achieve this with solar home systems.

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Figure 2: Threat of not converging with the future power infrastructure
Source: iPowerGen Renewable Energy (2016)

I believe that we should avoid short term solutions such as a small incremental step up the energy service ladder and instead adopt a long-term vision of building the energy infrastructure of the future in sub-Saharan Africa and in turn well and truly move our population out of energy- and socio-economic poverty. It is my view that AC mini-grids will be our best option for achieving this vision.

i PowerGen Renewable Energy. 2016. The Future of Power in Africa: How Africa can Lead the Next Generation of Global Power Infrastructure. Nairobi: PowerGen Renewable Energy.
ii Fong, M.W.L. 2009. Technology Leapfrogging for Developing Countries, in Khosrow-Pour, M. (ed.). Encyclopaedia of Information Science and Technology. Hershey: IGI Global.
iii Goldemberg, J. 2011. Technological Leapfrogging in the Developing World. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 12(1):135-141.
iv Lee, K., Miguel, E. & Wolfram, C. 2016. Appliance Ownership and Aspirations among Electric Grid and Home Solar Households in Rural Kenya. American Economic Review, 106(5):89-94.
v Knucles, J. 2016. Business models for mini-grid electricity in base of pyramid markets. Energy for Sustainable Development, 31(1):67-82.