Smart villages

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Science  23 Oct 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6259, pp. 359
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad6521

Last month in New York, the world adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), defining the global development agenda for the next 15 years. Among the 17 goals is Goal 7's aim to ensure “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.” Given that an estimated 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity and that 70% of the world's poor live offgrid in the countryside, this is indeed ambitious. How do we ensure that these remote communities have access to energy?


“…access to sustainable energy…enables holistic development…“

Energy is a catalyst for improving the quality of life. The value of a $5 solar lantern stretches well beyond simply providing light at night. It allows children to study after sunset, for instance, and therefore compete with peers who live in towns. Larger power systems provide commensurately greater benefits, such as lighting for security, refrigeration for food and medicines, and the ability to set up enterprises that support the community. Furthermore, the availability of electricity opens up space for technological innovations, such as remote education or handheld medical devices that can transmit information hundreds of miles away.

Access to sustainable energy is a necessary precursor to all the other SDGs and offers opportunities for synergy that integrated strategies might bring. One such strategy is the “smart village,” a rural analog of the “smart city” concept, in which access to sustainable energy, together with modern information and communication technologies, enables holistic development, including cultural changes in the provision of good education and health care; access to clean water, sanitation, and nutrition; and the growth of social and industrial enterprises to boost incomes. This approach in Terrat, in the Maasai region of northern Tanzania, underlies a biodiesel-fueled generating plant that now supports schools, health centers, a radio station, and the sprouting of local enterprises. Indeed, access to electricity helped a local dairy, whose prize-winning cheese has doubled the incomes of the Maasai women.

The reality is that extending existing grids to remote areas is often prohibitively expensive. What are needed instead are local solutions, and governments must adopt policy and regulatory frameworks for these local answers. This has been the case for establishing solar home systems in Bangladesh and mini-grids in Rwanda. New frameworks must address several key issues with clarity: appropriately targeted subsidies, tariffs that are commercially viable, and capital for entrepreneurs at affordable rates. A true game-changer would be enabling small- and medium-scale village-level energy projects to access large-scale international climate change funds. Important areas for future research and development include improved control systems that can balance the supply and demand of electricity throughout the day, and “plug-and-play” technologies for installing and maintaining home-based power systems, which would minimize the need for scarce local skills. Energy storage also needs a dedicated international research program to develop affordable and efficient batteries. More sharing of information and experiences between countries could drive systematic analyses of the knowledge and local skills required to implement and maintain energy services.

In the 15-year SDG marathon that lies ahead, something more than the warm words and sentiments of Goal 7 must be done to cover the “last mile”: the millions of people living in remote communities with no realistic chance of being connected to a grid. Smart villages are not the only approach for the sustainable development of rural populations, but they are certainly a strategy that can improve the quality of life and give younger generations positive reasons to stay rather than migrate.

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