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Energizing rural development

October 20, 2010

Hisham Zerriffi can easily list the ways in which electricity improves the lives of rural populations: Better education since children have light to read and study; improved healthcare facilities; more communication services – the list goes on.


Listen to Zerriffi explain why the two are mutually exclusive. (2.25)
Climate Change and Rural Electrification
Solutions for providing electricity to underserved rural populations often involve fossil fuels. This appears to pit energy gains against climate change reduction efforts.
  Hisham Zerriffi describes this challenge. (1.35)
How Electricity Saves Lives
Without electricity, many people rely on cooking stoves, using solid fuels such as wood or dung. As a result, about 1.5 million people die every year from indoor air pollution, according to World Health Organization data.

More on Zerriffi's research at the Liu Institute
“Energy is clearly a key driver of rural development,” says Zerriffi. 

Zerriffi was at IDRC in Ottawa to discuss his research on energy, the environment, and rural development. He is the first holder of the Ivan Head South-North Research Chair at the Liu Institute for Global Issues. The research chair housed at the University of British Columbia honours the legacy of the late Ivan Head, IDRC’s second president.

Zerriffi notes that despite years of global investment in energy-related infrastructure, 1.6 billion of the world’s people remain without access to electricity. Most of these people live in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Solutions to a "worst nightmare"    Rural populations are a utility company’s “worst nightmare,” says Zerriffi. They often live in remote, widely dispersed areas, have low incomes, and use relatively small amounts of energy. This means the traditional way utility companies deliver electricity – from centralized power plants to homes via transmission lines – is inefficient and ineffective.   Zerriffi started looking into solutions to this rural energy challenge during his post-doctoral studies at Stanford University. He was interested in the viability of distributed electrification systems, which he defines as any system in which power is both generated and consumed locally. These types of projects can take on a variety of forms depending on the local context – from a solar panel installed on an individual home to a small electricity network powered by a diesel engine.
Hisham Zerriffi
Members of a rural energy co-operative in Cambodia start up a biomass  gasification system
“For a number of decades, we’ve put small-scale electrification projects into rural areas. But most research has focused on a particular place or on a particular technology,” says Zerriffi.   “If distributed electrification is going to be part of the solution, we must learn broader lessons about it.”

Zerriffi travelled to Brazil, Cambodia, and China – three countries where electricity is distributed in very different ways. In all, he studied 30 such electrification projects, examining how each project’s business model and the context in which it operates affect success.

Lessons for local electrification

Zerriffi determined that cost recovery and financial sustainability are critical factors in any project’s success. “Both renewables and conventional generation methods have to be able to compete on their own merits… Providing free electricity is demonstrably unsustainable,” he says.

He also found that electricity must be directed toward improving the productive capacity of rural people so that energy actually raises living standards. “We have to move beyond household electrification and focus on how electrification can actually fit into larger development goals,” says Zerriffi.

Most important, while rural electrification is a key international and national development objective, it is often best achieved locally. But institutions need to be in place at the local level to provide these services, and local actors need to be engaged in the energy production process.

“The technologies are available, but the institutions are not developed,” says Zerriffi. “We need to experiment with different institutions to see what works and what doesn’t work in a particular context.” To learn more about Zerriffi's study, read his working paper "Making Small Work: Business Models for Electrifying the World." ​