Schatz Energy Research Center

Off-grid energy access

A young woman, circled by small children, lays out solar modules on the dirt.

1 billion people — 13% of the global population — have limited or no access to reliable electricity. Some live in communities without an electrical grid (off-grid). For others, the local electricity services are poor quality, intermittently available, and/or unaffordable for most users (marginal grid).

A man squats next to a solar water pump in a field.

Energy access encompasses three overlapping categories: household, productive, and community use.

Two men stand beside a small solar array in a field.

The most basic household energy needs include lighting, cooking, heating, and communications. Typically, the first needs met by an off-grid energy system are lighting and mobile phone charging. As households move up the “energy ladder” from zero to full energy access, appliances including fans, refrigerators, and televisions are added into the electrical mix.

The ability of a household to purchase energy is generally constrained by the productive, i.e. income-generating, capacity of its members. Further, many rural residents work inside their homes, creating an overlap between productive and household use. Productive energy needs take many forms, including lighting, communications and computation, heating and cooling, cooking and refrigeration, and powered machines such as sewing machines, shop tools and irrigation pumps.

Community energy use includes public facilities and infrastructure services. Off-grid solar systems power irrigation and street lights, computers in schools and municipal offices, and provide refrigeration for medicines and vaccines. Developing successful solar systems for public facilities requires collaboration between local and national government, solar distributors, maintenance providers, and community users.


International collaboration

The Schatz Center collaborates with international partners to improve energy access in off-grid and marginal grid environments worldwide. We work closely with the World Bank Group and CLASP to manage the Lighting Global Quality Assurance program for off-grid solar products and systems. We also provide onsite training for off-grid solar product test labs in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, conduct field research in energy poor rural communities, and maintain an off-grid solar products testing laboratory at our center in Northern California. We also engage with Global LEAP, UNCDF, CLASP, GOGLA and other organizations focused on off-grid energy access.

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