How off-grid solar solutions are key to climate adaptation and resilience

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Groundwater is pumped by solar power. Groundwater is pumped by solar power.

The searing temperatures endured earlier this year by Pakistan, followed by devastating floods that left 33 million people homeless, were yet another stark reminder of the catastrophic impacts of climate change on people, countries, and economies. In many regions, climate change has wreaked havoc over prolonged periods. In Kenya’s arid north, the current drought has been the longest and most severe in 40 years, resulting in widespread livelihood losses and massive population displacements.

Climate change is accelerating, hitting the most vulnerable and poorest people the hardest. The cruel irony is that people who have contributed the least to global greenhouse gas emissions will suffer the most from its impact.  Technologies to adapt to more extreme droughts, floods, heatwaves, and hurricanes triggered by climate change are urgently needed and must be deployed fast.

Our recent Off-Grid Solar Market Trends 2022 reports on the State of the Sector and Outlook point to the tremendous potential of off-grid solar technologies, including for solar lighting, communications, irrigation and cooling systems, to help vulnerable communities increase their resilience.

Food and water security

Solar water pumps provide one such impactful example. These are used to access groundwater, provide fresh water for drinking, and irrigate fields, increasing the size or frequency of crops. As Kavita Ndolo, a farmer from Machakos, Kenya, explains: “My area is known for the sun and is always hot and dry. If you get a solar water pump, you convert the sun from being a problem to a resource.” Projections from the report show that globally 192 million smallholder farmers, most reliant on rain-fed agriculture, could benefit from solar irrigation.

While solar irrigation can boost food production, solar refrigeration enables its preservation. Estimates put global food losses from lack of cold storage at 14% of all production. “Given heightened drought conditions from climate change and increased food costs from global inflation, the importance of solar irrigation and refrigeration for improving food security could not be more acute,” advises Makena Ireri of the Efficiency for Access Coalition.

Clean energy jobs

In addition to mitigating climate risks, off-grid solar solutions contribute to energy security, boosting productivity with the clean energy technologies of the future.  Solar energy kits are already used to light and power 490 million people and 10.5 million enterprises, increasing savings, income, and welfare.  The industry also supports over 370,000 green jobs in sales, distribution, customer services, and management, often in rural areas where other employment opportunities are lacking. “The off-grid sector is building the clean energy jobs and infrastructure of the future,” advises Bill Gallery of the International Finance Corporation, “by focusing on the energy-poor, the industry is placing them at the forefront of the clean energy transition”, he adds.

Displacement of kerosene and diesel generators

Positive effects such as these are complemented by substantial emissions reduction benefits. While off-grid infrastructure is at the individual rather than industrial scale, replacing current energy sources, such as kerosene lanterns and diesel generators, with solar alternatives creates outsized mitigation impacts. To date, the sector has averted the use of over 190 million metric tons of CO2e, equivalent to taking 51 coal-fired power plants offline for a year.

Response to climate disaster

Off-grid solar also has a role in mitigating climate disasters. Solar powered communications, including mobile phones, radios, TVs and tablets, can provide access to life-saving information, including as part of emergency planning and early warning systems.  Off-grid technologies can provide light and power for post-disaster response operations and critical infrastructure. Today, 60% of Africa’s health centers are still unelectrified and do not have the capacity for the cold storage of life-saving medicines and vaccines. Electrifying health infrastructure and expanding access to solar refrigeration will keep communities healthy, and improve their ability to respond to climate shocks. 

Investing for action

Despite the progress of the off-grid sector, 733 million people still live without basic modern electricity. Factoring in population growth, 516 million people will remain without access in 2030. “As the frequency of extreme weather intensifies, millions of energy-poor and climate-vulnerable families will still be unable to access life-saving information, basic health services or the food they need to survive,” advises Raihan Elahi of the World Bank’s Lighting Global Program. “They will be primarily located in the hardest-to-reach markets, so it is vital that we develop targeted off-grid initiatives to reach them,” he adds. Projected investment into the industry is currently $15.5 billion short of the amount needed to meet SDG7 electrification targets.

To close the investment gap, the two Off-Grid Solar Market Trends Reports 2022 find that the sector needs to urgently pivot from business as usual and identifies key game changers that could unlock the required growth. These include greater pay-as-you-go consumer financing, strategic investor engagement and an increase in subsidies and concessional funding. More climate finance is needed too, and with it, a greater focus on funding for adaptation. “The off-grid sector presents an opportunity for governments, development organizations and investors to support an innovative industry that is bringing electricity to hundreds of millions of the most vulnerable people on earth – improving their resilience to climate impacts and other shocks,” explains Patrick Tonui, GOGLA’s Head of Policy, “and it is doing so whilst avoiding millions of tons of CO2e”.  

Without electricity access for all, an equitable clean energy transition is not possible. Resilience is not possible. And climate risks cannot be mitigated.  We have an opportunity to reduce climate vulnerability while lifting hundreds of millions from energy poverty. Now is the time to turn opportunity into action.  

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Makena Ireri

Efficiency for Access

Patrick K. Tonui

Head of Policy and Regional Strategy, GOGLA

Bill Gallery

Operations Officer, IFC’s Financial Institutions Group (FIG)

Raihan Elahi

Lead Energy Specialist, World Bank

Hanna Dohrenbusch

Project Leader, Open Capital Advisors

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