As part of the promotion of basic human rights, successful clean energy transitions should ensure universal energy access and the eradication of energy poverty, improving the affordability of energy for all. The IEA estimates that 770 million people are still without electricity access and 2.6 billion without clean cooking access, and that progress worsened during the pandemic. Countries without universal energy access today will follow specific clean energy transition pathways that prioritise access. Energy efficiency will play an important role in supporting access while lowering costs and emissions.

Good alignment between clean energy and access policies can enhance the success of both, and a number of programmes have successfully reduced energy bills for low-income households while also expanding access to clean energy.

  • Morocco achieved universal electrification through a successful rural electrification plan that included reaching the remaining unserved 10% of the population in remote areas, often the most difficult to serve, through solar home systems.
  • Kenya too has seen rapid growth in electricity access, from 20% in 2013 to nearly 85% in 2019, due to both increased grid connections and expanded home solar systems.
  • India’s UJALA campaign greatly expanded the penetration of high-efficiency lighting to low-income households in an affordable way through an innovative repayment system.  
  • The European Commission’s Renovation Wave Strategy aims to reduce energy poverty by improving the energy performance of buildings.
  • Spain’s “DUS 5,000” scheme offers aid for small municipalities (less than 5 000 inhabitants) to improve energy efficiency or promote sustainable mobility in rural areas. It also created the “PREE 5,000” aid scheme for energy efficiency rehabilitations of buildings in rural areas.
  • Austria has increased information and financial support for households to switch from fossil-fuel-based heating to greener options, focusing on lower income groups. Similarly, Poland’s Clean Air programme targets low-emissions heating retrofits for households impacted by energy poverty.

Beyond grid access, quality and reliability of energy supplies are equally important considerations. Energy access strategies often involve “leapfrogging” to off-grid solutions driven by efficiency and renewables, and may entail new business models that allow for greater access at lower costs.

  •  Colombia has introduced a new mechanism for the Network Operators of the National Interconnected System (SIN) to bring power service through off-grid and micro-grid solutions to around 338 000 homes that are not connected to the main grid.
  • Expanding access can also be supported by reducing taxes. Senegal, for example, exempts renewable energy equipment from its VAT, a policy designed to increase electrification and penetration of renewables.
  • Canada’s Clean Energy for Rural and Remote Communities (CERRC) Program supports the deployment and demonstration of renewables solutions and strengthens local capacity to reduce diesel reliance in rural and remote communities.
  • Mexico’s government contributes public funds toward the installation of solar panels in rural areas to expand access and reduce energy poverty.
  • Brazil has used biomass gasification to expand electricity access in rural areas, while micro hydropower plants have been developed to expand access in Indonesia.

Energy efficiency measures are important to achieving these objectives. Many countries offer support to low-income households for energy efficiency upgrades, including France, the United States and New Zealand. Notably, the International Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology, with the support of the US Department of Energy, has been undertaking deep retrofit projects in the US small commercial apartment property market, which has been an especially challenging market for energy efficiency improvements. To ensure affordability for first-time energy users, it is critical to include energy efficiency measures in access and electrification strategies. 

Case studies

Universal electrification in Morocco

The Moroccan universal access programme for electricity based on solar power concluded in 2010. While in 1990 only a low 18% of the rural population had access to electricity, today’s coverage is nearly 100%. As part of the programme, 10% of the country’s population, or around 200 000 households that live in remote rural areas, were electrified through solar home systems. Among the factors that enabled Morocco’s success with universal electrification was that local stakeholders were able to design and implement solar concessions and could attract international solar developers that conducted feasibility analyses for various supply options. Furthermore, strong political will and the inclusion of all means of financing, including private-sector finance, cross-subsidies, direct public subsidies and international debt supported the strong outcomes of the programme. With the conclusion of the programme and a nearly universal electrification of the population, social development in remote rural areas has advanced considerably, helping to narrow regional inequalities.

Kenya’s progress on electricity access

Kenya has seen rapid growth in electricity access, from 20% in 2013 to nearly 85% in 2019. This significant progress rests on the country’s National Electrification Strategy, which provides a roadmap to achieving universal energy access by 2022. The Strategy uses a complementary approach, including both the expansion of grid infrastructure and decentralised solutions such as off-grid solar home systems and mini-grids. Given the cost of expanding the power grid, many communities in Kenya are “under-grid”, i.e. they are close to the grid but are not connected. In these locations, solar home systems are often combined with energy-efficient appliances to match household energy needs and ability to pay. This strategy results in affordable electricity access both for households and for the government, as connecting these homes to the grid would be more expensive. The counties in Northern Kenya with the lowest access rates also have high solar potential, and are the focus of the Kenya Off-Grid Solar Access Project, a joint venture of the Ministry of Energy, the Kenya Power and Lighting Company and the Rural Electrification Agency.

India’s Unnat Jyoti by Affordable LEDs for all (UJALA)

The government of India in 2015 launched the UJALA programme to provide LED bulbs to domestic consumers, with a target to replace 770 million incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs by March 2019. As of July 2021, approximately 360 million incandescent bulbs have been replaced leading to 47 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy savings per year and 30 Mt CO2 emissions savings per year. The programme has allowed low-income households to purchase LEDs at an initial cost of USD 0.154 each and to pay off the balance through easy instalments from their electricity bills. The programme has not only helped promote the use of efficient lighting technology at affordable rates to domestic consumers but has also helped the country’s distribution companies manage peak demand due to reduced energy consumption from lighting end-users. 

European Commission’s Renovation Wave Strategy

The European Commission’s Renovation Wave Strategy aims to cut emissions, improve quality of life and reduce energy poverty by accelerating home renovations across the EU to improve the energy performance of buildings. Lowering energy consumption needs for households has the benefit of breaking the cycle of high energy bills and arrears, with an estimated 34 million Europeans currently unable to afford adequate home heating or cooling. Moreover, since inefficient buildings increase vulnerability to cold spells and heatwaves, the renovation wave strategy will improve the health and well-being of citizens. The strategy’s target is to double energy renovation rates in the next ten years, leading to greater energy and resource efficiency. The Commission estimates that 35 million buildings could be renovated by 2030, also creating up to 160 000 jobs in the construction sect

Spain’s aid for small municipalities

As part of Spain’s Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan, the Spanish government has created a specific aid mechanism for small municipalities called “DUS 5,000”. Spain’s depopulation trend is concentrated in rural areas. The scheme therefore provides subsidies to aid small municipalities (with less than 5 000 inhabitants) improve energy efficiency and promote sustainable mobility in rural areas. A total of 6 974 municipalities meet the eligibility criteria, accounting for 14% of Spain’s total population. The DUS 5000 aid programme is geared towards entities undertaking local clean energy projects in these municipalities, such as energy efficiency projects in public and residential buildings and public infrastructure – notably public lighting – as well as sustainable mobility, by promotion by municipalities in the deployment of electric vehicle charging infrastructure. The DUS 5000 programme has a budget of EUR 75 million, financed through the European Recovery and Resilience Mechanism, will run until November 2022. This scheme is complemented by another mechanism called “PREE 5,000” which aims to promote energy efficient building retrofits in rural areas. Both programmes are administered by the Institute for Energy Savings and Diversification (IDAE) a decentralised agency of the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge (MITECO).

“Away from oil and gas” programme in Austria

The financial incentive programme “away from oil and gas” supports individuals and businesses to change their space heating systems away from fossil fuels toward sustainable systems. About 600 000 households in Austria still use polluting oil-heating systems. The programme places a special emphasis on support for low-income households. For 20% of the lowest-income households, the programme added an extra support of EUR 100 million over the years 2021-22. The special mechanisms allow for support quotas of up to 100% of the cost of new heating. The special support is expected to benefit up to 8 000 low-income households, thereby supporting social and economic development and the participation of all parts of society in the clean energy transition. 

Poland’s Clean Air Programme

Poland’s Clean Air Programme is a nation-wide public grant scheme to support sing-family buildings renovations. This entails the replacement of old heating devices and/or deep thermo-modernisation, with over PLN 100 billion (EUR 22 billion) earmarked for the programme. The programme is operated by the National Fund for Environmental Protection and Water Management and its regional bodies, with about 2 000 local communities. Grants differentiate between three beneficiary groups – up to PLN 30 000 for the basic version, up to PLN 37 000 for people in more difficult financial situations, and an additional PLN 5 000 grant for photovoltaics. Recent changes have streamlined and sped up the application process and disbursement mechanisms. In parallel, at the commune-level, the Stop Smog programme finances thermal modernisation of single-family homes, focusing in particular on energy poor households. The programme is targeted at municipalities covered by the “anti-smog resolution”, and supports the replacement of high-emissions heating systems with low-emission substitutes, thermo-modernisation of single-family residential buildings, and connection to the heating or gas networks. As such, the aid will support households whose owners cannot afford to replace heat sources in reducing emissions and increasing energy affordability. The implementation of the Stop Smog programme is planned for 2019-2024, with a budget of PLN 1 billion, of which PLN 180 million has been allocated so far. The first call for applications resulted in agreements with seven municipalities, and contributed to refurbishments of approximately 1 100 buildings. 

Colombia’s electrification in rural areas

Colombia introduced a new mechanism to bring power service to households that are not physically connected to the main grid. It consists of providing tariff incentives to distribution network operators to carry out renewable energy projects in rural areas where connection to the main grid is not an economically viable solution. Network operators can deploy centralised micro-grids in remote communities or install self-consumption solutions in isolated homes that are more difficult to access. The government identified 338 000 households that could benefit from this mechanism, of which 170 000 could be supplied through community micro-grids and 168 000 with off-grid solar systems. Through the programme, the government expects to end 2021 with more than 70 000 families receiving electricity for the first time. Moreover, projects are underway to end 2022 with nearly 100 000 new homes connected. In addition, the inclusion of new business models, such as logistics networks, will help Colombia accelerate universal electricity access by 2030.

Canada's Clean Energy for Rural and Remote Communities

Given that over 200 northern, remote and Indigenous communities in Canada are reliant on diesel for heat and power generation, and consume approximately 680 million litres of diesel every year. For the majority of these communities, this reliance has been debilitating. The diesel-based micro-grids are inefficient, vulnerable to outages, expensive to operate, and contribute to local pollution, leading to negative economic and environmental implications. The government has committed to supporting these communities transition from diesel-fuelled power and heat to clean, renewable and reliable energy by 2030. The Clean Energy for Rural and Remote Communities (CERRC) Program is investing CAD 220 million (EUR 148 million) to support the deployment and demonstration of renewables solutions and strengthen local capacity to reduce diesel reliance in rural, remote and northern communities and off-grid industrial sites. The programme is technology neutral and targets commercially available, medium to large renewable energy solutions (projects greater than 250 kW). Complementing CERRC, the Northern Responsible Energy Approach for Community Heat and Electricity Program targets the deployment of commercially-available small to medium renewable energy systems, combined heat and power, heat pumps, energy efficiency measures, technology demonstrations, and capacity building for Indigenous and northern communities.

Mexico’s Integrated Energy Services Project

Mexico extended electricity coverage to Indigenous rural parts of the country by installing renewable energy facilities through the Integrated Energy Services Project, which was co-financed by the World Bank and the Mexican government. Many Indigenous communities in Mexico live in remote and isolated locations, where access to basic services and infrastructure are not ensured. From 2012 to 2016, this project allowed 2 235 homes in 40 communities to benefit from electricity access, as a result of the installation of 2 357 kW of centralised solar farms, equivalent to around 139 000 tonnes of CO2 emissions avoided each year. In addition, the provision of electricity improved the quality of life of residents as it allowed communities to power other public services such as education, communications and health infrastructure, public lighting and water pumping. 

Biomass gasification in rural areas in Brazil

Brazil developed biomass gasification to expand electricity access in rural areas. Between 2002 and 2005, research institutions developed the GASEIFAMAZ pilot project, which consisted of testing two imported, small-scale biomass gasification plants in isolated communities in the Amazon region. The success of this initiative led to the deployment of the “Nationalization of the Gasification Technology and Formation of Human Resources in Amazon Region” (GASEIBRAS) project, which consisted of replicating the GASEIFAMAZ model and analysing the possibilities for its local manufacturing. Electricity generation from biomass gasification in isolated rural areas was enabled by technology transfer, and has more recently motivated research into local innovation.

Indonesia’s micro hydro plants

Catholic Pastor Marselus Hasan from Reno village, Flores initiated a micro-hydro power project in his village after seeing how the villagers suffered from unreliable electricity due to the daily maintenance required to repair generators. Contributions from villagers to cover some construction costs amounted to 2 million rupiah (EUR 120) per family, supplemented by funding from the United Nations Development Programme and Bank NTT, as well as a loans from a local cooperative. The Wae Rina Micro-Hydro Power Plant began construction in 2012 and was completed in four months, providing electricity to 134 households, one community health centre, a market and a church. Due to the success of the initial project, Marselus and the team developed three additional micro-hydro power plants: Wae Mese Wangkar plant in Sambi Rampas subdistrict and the Wae Laban Elar and Wae Lenger plants in Elar Poco Ranaka subdistrict. The power plants resulted in estimated cost savings of 230 000 rupiah/month (EUR 14) for villagers that relied on kerosene and 860 000 rupiah/month (EUR 50) for villagers that relied on diesel generators; it also served to boost community solidarity.

Guyana’s Hinterland Electrification Programme

As part of Guyana’s Hinterland Energy Strategy from 2013, the Hinterland Renewable Energy project was launched in 2014 to provide energy access to rural households that are not connected to the national grid. As of 2014, 11 540 solar home systems had been installed in nearly 200 communities, along with training for 400 mostly Indigenous people for the installation and maintenance of systems. Building off this, Guyana is working to ensure universal energy access by 2030 through investments in off-grid solar systems, expansion of the Hinterland Electrification Programme, replacement and upgrade of solar powered systems, and development of micro grids at public/community buildings for large hinterland areas. Installation of 13 solar farms leading to a combined 37.5 MW of solar PV capacity are expected to be completed by 2023. In addition, Guyana received funding to install a 3 MW grid-connected solar PV system at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport, along with 30 000 solar home systems to benefit Hinterland and rural communities with limited electricity access. Moreover, the completion of 20 solar PV micro-grids in Hinterland communities will be concluded in 2022. Three mini hydropower plants are also advancing to benefit Hinterland communities.

Brazil’s RevoluSolar project

In Brazil, RevoluSolar, a community-based organisation is dedicated to installing solar panels in favelas, where it also trains residents as electricians or entrepreneurs, and delivers workshops on sustainable awareness, promoting the involvement of the local population in all stages of projects. The NGO partners with various private, public and association organisations, and relies on donations as well as the voluntary services of engineering professionals. The programme has already installed three solar plants equivalent to 12 kilowatts peak (kWp), powering a school and two local businesses, and expects to deploy another 26 kWp in 2021, which could supply about 35 families. They also trained 31 residents as electricians and solar installers, and organised more than 20 environmental workshops for children and adolescents. The programme’s goal is to deliver 100 more professional certificates and 80 workshops in 2021, enhancing community engagement and autonomy. 

France’s “MaPrimeRénov” Programme

Since 1 January 2020, the tax credit for energy transition (CITE) and the programme “Habiter Mieux Agilité”, led by the national housing agency (ANAH) merged into a single grant called "MaPrimeRénov’". This grant can be used by homeowners to partially cover the cost of installing energy efficient improvements to their homes. Compared to the former tax credit, MaPrimRénov is simpler, more efficient and encompasses social justice with a higher funding rate for low-income families. In 2020, MaPrimeRénov received the largest budget allocation to date for energy efficient building retrofits, amounting to EUR 570 million. Despite the Covid crisis, more than 140 000 MaPrimeRénov’ grants were delivered that year. Since 1 January 2021, the tax credit is no longer available and MaPrimeRénov has been extended thanks to the France Relance plan for all homeowners and landlords, including co-owners in collective buildings. The grant can now also cover part of the cost of a renovation consultant; bonuses were created to incentivise higher energy-efficient renovations. More than 500 000 MaPrimeRénov grants have been delivered to date in 2021, and over 8 million visits were registered on the platform The aim of the programme is now to finance the retrofit of 700 000 to 800 000 dwellings a year, with a budget allocation of EUR 2 billion in 2022. 

US Weatherization Assistance Program

The US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Weatherization Assistance Program provides support to low-income households for increasing energy efficiency in homes. Using DOE funds, the programme provides around 35 000 homes with weatherisation upgrades annually and supports 8 500 jobs. For households, the savings amount to an average of at least USD 283 per year. The programme has been in place since 1976 and is estimated to have helped over 7 million households. In 2020, the programme received USD 308.5 million in funding

New Zealand Warmer Kiwi Homes

The Warmer Kiwi Homes programme in New Zealand, launched in its current form in 2018, provides grants that cover 80% of the cost of insulation and clean heating for low-income households. New Zealand’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) administers the programme. Qualifying homes must be owner-occupied, built before 2008, and either be situated in an area that is classified as low-income or have one occupant that is a holder of a Community Services Card. EECA maintains a list of approved energy products and a panel of registered energy service providers that deliver the measures and conduct regular and random audits. Total funding allocated to the programme over four years was originally NZD 142.5 million (EUR 85 million) for the insulation or installation of heaters in 52 000 homes. The programme has since received an additional NZD 176 million in funding to retrofit an additional 50 000 homes by mid-2023. 

International Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology retrofit programme

Retrofitting older buildings will be a particularly important component of clean energy transitions, especially given the age of building stock and costs associated with inefficient use of energy. In the United States, around 60% of multifamily buildings were built prior to 1980 while over half of available rentals are estimated to be at least 50 years old. In particular, the small commercial apartment property market has been an especially challenging one for energy efficiency improvements due to ownership structures and knowledge gaps. In response, with support from the DOE’s Commercial Buildings Integration programme and funding from the Solution to Improve the Energy Efficiency of Small and Medium Buildings, the International Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology is expanding deep retrofits in the US small commercial property market. In particular, ICAST offers a platform of resources to owners of small commercial apartments to undertake retrofits, including green consultants to provide energy audits, financial consultants to provide financing advice, and implementation contractors. Using a one-stop-shop approach, ICAST in partnership with DOE completed energy efficiency upgrades on 956 multi-family buildings with eight affiliates across four states and seven cities. The completed project demonstrated an annual energy savings of 103 166 MMBtu, 190 298 GHG emissions reduced over the lifetime of the upgrades, 258 jobs created, and USD 4 008 average utility savings per building annually. In total, ICAST has successfully undertaken over 5 000 retrofits of multifamily homes.