Autonomous off-grid or micro-grid renewable energy generation technologies are gaining momentum in both emerging and developed economies. Distributed energy generation is very well placed to meet the needs of the 1.4 billion people who lack access to energy worldwide. However, there is also growing interest in decentralized energy within developed countries. This suggests that the viability of distributed energy generation will not become redundant in low-income communities as they grow richer. In Germany, for example, households and farmers are now the major players in renewable energy generation, with utilities today owning only 12 percent of the country’s renewable energy assets.
Pursuing the development of energy autonomy for larger groups could bring significant added benefits. For example, autonomous micro-grids with the ability to ‘island’ themselves from the grid provided greater resilience in the face of extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy in the USA in 2012.
In off-grid contexts, renewable energy sources often constitute a flexible, easy-to-use, and affordable means of electrification. This will significantly decrease the risk of sunk assets in the shape of carbon-intensive energy infrastructure and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As such, it is possible to “leapfrog” to a distributed low-carbon energy system while meeting the urgent human need for access to electricity. This goes hand in hand with the advent of mobile technologies, illustrating the potential for developing countries to bypass a fixed network in favour of a more flexible and modular array of mini-grids.
In developed economies, a variety of business models and financing opportunities relating to energy autonomy have already emerged. For example, leasing solutions have rapidly achieved scale in the USA by offering households as well as businesses the opportunity to produce energy by installing solar panels on their roofs. In the rural context, there are numerous options for micro-finance and third party financing to bolster access more rapidly.