Powering the People: Transforming Energy Access


Aerial shot of the workers moving on the roof and conducting the installation, wiring and checking of the panels.
Solar panels being installed on the roof of the metro station in Delhi, India (Photo credit: amlanmathur / iStock)

The global energy transition is at a critical juncture. As nations strive to achieve the ambitious targets set by the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is becoming increasingly clear that the current, one-size-fits-all approach to renewable energy deployment will not suffice.

The good news is that decentralized renewable energy solutions, particularly solar, hold immense potential for accelerating universal electricity access and climate resilience. And while we also need more solutions focused on improving the resilience and optimization of the grid, we can and should at the same time empower communities to take control of their futures by working to enable localized generation and distribution of clean energy.

This is a paradigm shift in how we think about energy access and governance. But unlocking the full potential of decentralized renewables requires more than just technological innovation — it demands a fundamental reimagining of energy policies and regulatory frameworks.

The Global Energy Access Challenge

Despite significant progress in recent years, energy poverty remains a challenge, with nearly 759 million people worldwide still lacking access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). This lack of access disproportionately affects rural and remote communities, perpetuating inequalities and hindering socio-economic development. 

Decentralized renewables offer a promising bridge to this energy access gap. By leveraging locally available resources, such as solar, wind, and micro-hydro, these solutions can provide clean, reliable, and affordable electricity to communities that are beyond the reach of centralized grids. Decentralized renewables also create jobs, stimulate entrepreneurship, and promote sustainable livelihoods. 

Policy Innovations Driving Decentralization

Around the world, pioneering nations are demonstrating that responsive and adaptive policies can foster vibrant decentralized renewable energy ecosystems. These policy innovations span a range of interventions, from market design and financial mechanisms to community engagement and capacity building. 

Feed-in tariffs (FITs) and net metering policies have been instrumental in driving the growth of decentralized solar in many countries. These mechanisms allow small-scale renewable energy producers, like households and businesses, to sell their excess electricity back to the grid at a guaranteed price. By providing a predictable revenue stream, FITs and net metering reduce investment risks and make decentralized renewables more financially attractive. 

Germany's early adoption of FITs in the 1990s paved the way for a massive expansion of decentralized solar, transforming the country into a global leader in renewable energy. Similarly, in the U.S., net metering policies have been a key driver in recent decades of the rooftop solar revolution, with two million installations nationwide to date. 

Community Energy Projects

Community energy projects involve local communities coming together to develop and manage their own renewable energy assets, such as solar farms or wind turbines. By pooling resources and sharing benefits, community energy projects enable collective decision-making, build local capacity, and create a sense of ownership and stewardship. 

Scotland has been at the forefront of community energy development, with over 500 projects in operation, ranging from small-scale solar installations to large wind farms. The Scottish Government's supportive policies, including the Community and Renewable Energy Scheme (CARES), have been instrumental in fostering the growth of this sector. 

Microgrids and Energy-as-a-Service

Microgrids are another decentralized solution that is gaining traction, particularly in remote and island communities. These self-sufficient energy systems combine renewable generation, energy storage, and smart controls to provide reliable and resilient electricity services. By enabling local energy management and reducing dependence on fossil fuels, microgrids can enhance energy security and sustainability.

In addition to technical innovations, new business models are emerging to make decentralized renewables more accessible and affordable. Energy-as-a-service (EaaS) models, for example, allow customers to pay for energy services on a per-use basis, rather than owning the underlying infrastructure. This approach can lower up-front costs and enable flexible, demand-driven energy access. 

India's SEWA (Self-Employed Women's Association) has pioneered a successful EaaS model for rural women entrepreneurs. By providing solar-powered energy services, such as mobile charging and lighting, on a pay-per-use basis, SEWA has made it possible for women to start their own businesses and improve their livelihoods.

To scale up these innovative models and accelerate the deployment of decentralized renewables, enabling policies and regulations are essential. Governments and policymakers have a critical role to play in creating a supportive and stable environment for decentralized energy solutions to thrive.

This includes streamlining permitting and interconnection processes, providing financial incentives and tax credits, and establishing clear and consistent regulations for distributed generation. It also involves investing in capacity building and training programs to develop local skills and expertise in renewable energy technologies and business models. 

Policies that promote community engagement and participatory decision-making are crucial for ensuring that decentralized renewables are aligned with local needs and priorities. By empowering communities to shape their own energy futures, these policies can foster local ownership, social acceptance, and long-term sustainability. 

The Way Forward

As the world seeks to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon, resilient, and equitable energy future, decentralized renewables offer a powerful tool for democratizing energy access and empowering communities. By learning from and scaling up the policy innovations and best practices emerging around the world, we can unlock the transformative potential of these solutions.

Realizing this potential will require a concerted effort from all stakeholders, including governments, businesses, civil society, and local communities. It will require bold leadership, innovative thinking, and a willingness to challenge the status quo.

At the Bezos Earth Fund, we are committed to supporting this transformation by investing in game-changing solutions and collaborating with partners to drive systemic change. We believe that by working together, we can build a future where we decarbonize while offering communities access to clean, affordable, and reliable energy, and where the benefits of the energy transition are shared equitably.

  We must empower communities to take control of their energy futures and become active participants in the global energy transition. And we need to act together now, because the path forward is clear — and the stakes could not be higher.

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