Show someone in the developing world a landline telephone and it might well be the first time they’ve ever seen one. Developing countries largely skipped landlines and went from no phones to mobile phones. Similarly, they are now skipping the large, centralized, capital-intensive power plant model and getting home-scale solar power systems. Or, in some cases, they get community-scale solar, wind, biomass, or small hydro systems and microgrids.
On the flip side, there are even more decentralized technologies that are even more popular than home solar systems in these countries. There are solar-powered phone chargers, solar-powered lights, solar-powered water pumping systems, and so on.
There are currently about 1.3 billion people without access to electricity, and about 1 billion more without reliable electricity. A common promise of politicians is that these people are “about to get the grid.” But the reality of the matter is, large electricity grids and large power plants are the power technologies of the 20th century. More efficient, distributed power systems and technologies are making up the new wave of the electricity market. Millions or billions of people will never get “the grid,” but they will get electricity, through microgrids or through smaller systems.
The solutions are already here, and there are countless companies and organizations, not to mention people, working to bring electricity to those in developing countries. It may not happen as quickly as the mobile phone revolution, but I think it will happen more quickly than many of us think is possible.
Furthermore, it’s happening through clean technologies that won’t ruin the users’ health and result in premature death. The new electricity recipients won’t suffer from the air and water pollution that comes from coal and natural gas power plants, nor the radioactve disasters that have hit Europe, the US, and Japan. The 21st century is not the 20th century.