Off-grid energy from technologies like mini-grids, biofuels, and solar may often go unrecorded, but a new report attempting to fill statistical gaps still shows that the rise of off-grid renewables was thrown off-course during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) annual Off-Grid Renewable Energy Statistics released in December “is an essential tool for monitoring and measuring the role of off-grid renewables to achieve the energy transition and universal energy access by 2030,” said Dennis Akande, the agency’s associate program officer for statistics.
Off-grid renewables capacity has been expanding in recent years thanks to falling costs, technological and financial innovation, and supportive policies. IRENA’s publication includes statistics for mini-grids, biogas-powered cooking and lighting, and off-grid solar lights, pumps, and home solar systems across countries in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Oceania, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. The information is available in English, French, and Spanish, with values organized by country and region for each year from 2012 through 2021.
IRENA based its estimates on information collected from various sources, including questionnaires, national and international databases, and unofficial sources like project reports, news articles, academic studies, and websites. The numbers show a general increase in off-grid renewable energy capacity since 2012 for all technologies across nearly all regions. Outliers include some solar home systems and biogas for cooking, which declined in Asia, and total biogas production, which dropped by more than one million cubic metres due to decreases in Asia and South America.
The available data did show a general increase across most off-grid technologies, but with varied results across countries. For instance, the number of people using biogas for cooking dropped over the 10 years of data—largely because of a decline across Asia—while use of solar lights and solar home systems decreased in various countries across several regions. Solar microgrid usage in South America held constant through all 10 years.
Use of some of the technologies also increased or decreased inconsistently through the study period. This was most noticeable for biogas, solar lights, and solar home systems, which all dropped off through the main years of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. The decline in solar lighting in 2021 was particularly pronounced, with total usage falling by almost half in India and to a lesser degree across most of Africa (though IRENA statistics do not provide enough information to establish a direct link between off-grid energy use and the pandemic).
Off-grid renewable energy systems are especially useful for rural communities that lack access to centralized electricity generation and often rely on polluting, expensive energy sources for lighting and cooking. Off-grid systems can also be important for health centres that don’t have grid access, where a lack of electricity can result in disastrous outcomes for patients. Policy support to address these issues has delivered good results—for example, off-grid solar light capacity in Africa rose from 15.4 million in 2012 to 112 million in 2021, despite a drop between 2020 and 2021, and more than 122 million people now us biogas for cooking, which reduces indoor pollution that is detrimental to women’s and children’s health, IRENA says.