NPR's All Things Considered has a great radio piece today on some work being done by economists at Berkeley. The audio clip, as well as the accompanying post from Goats and Soda (one of my favorite development blogs), features development economics superstar Ted Miguel taking a hard look at the types of energy access that are necessary to spur development.
The money quote from Ted is: "No industrial country has ever powered its economic growth with solar lanterns." This point echoes comments made by Catherine Wolfram, Ted's co-PI on the Kenya electrification project (and much less auspiciously, my advisor) on the Energy Institute's blog a few months ago. The basic idea is this: providing small-scale home solar energy systems that can run a lightbulb and a cell phone charger might be sexier than grid hookups, but we should think carefully about how and why electrification might drive development. It's hard to come up with stories where big changes in standards of living result from a couple of electric lights attached to home solar systems - whereas access to the grid can and does support refrigerators, irrigation pumps, and appliances that can be used in cottage industry. It's also worth noting that once a household has access to the grid, it can start small and scale up - but a solar hookup will always be limited to a few low-wattage items.
All that said, though, the effects of electrification in the developing world are (for the most part) a big question mark at this point. The empirical jury is still largely out on how distributed and grid energy access affect the lives of the rural poor in developing countries, and perhaps more importantly, on how energy access can lead to larger-scale structural transformation and economic growth.
There is lots of ongoing work (my own included - stay tuned!) to try and address these types of questions, and I'm encouraged to see that people are evaluating both small-scale solar projects and access to the grid. I'm personally generally of the opinion that improved access to energy services is important for development - but that we might think that providing a single lightbulb can change one household's life, while providing grid hookups in a region with a little bit of capital to utilize them might be able to transform a community. When thinking about a policymaker's limited budgets, we want to get the most bang for our buck - and intuitively, that seems like it might be grid connections. I'm looking forward to being able to base my opinions on solid empirical work in the future, rather than just wild speculation (but wild speculation is half the fun of blogging, so...).