A billion people need electricity. They'll likely skip the grid

As 3 million Americans living in Puerto Rico are finding out, life without electricity can be hell. A month after hurricanes ravaged the island, 80 percent of it is still without power, leading to offers, including from Elon Musk, to completely overhaul Puerto Rico's electricity grid with clean energy.   

Although Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., its struggle echoes what's going on in many developing countries. While rich nations figure out how to convert their grid to clean power, many poorer nations are still working out how to get all their citizens access to power in the first place. The world is high-tech enough that most people, even in developing countries, have access to cell phones. But some 1.3 billion still don't have electricity.

"That's a crazy statistic -- that means more people now don't have electricity than when Thomas Edison turned on the light bulb, because of population growth" said Daniel Epstein, a social entrepreneur and investor.  

Through a business incubator and venture capital fund that he started, Epstein boosts companies aimed at solving pressing social issues. One of those startups, called Greenlight Planet, focuses on the issue of rural electricity. For the past eight years, Greenlight has been getting solar-powered lanterns and home power systems to rural communities, mostly in Africa and Asia.

Many companies and nonprofits have done this, even as governments invest heavily in bringing clean energy to the grid. Greenlight's business model is a little different. The company has tried to make solar systems as "plug-and-play" as possible, said CEO and founder Patrick Walsh.

"It's just simple connectors, so literally the same kid that's going to use the solar home system to study can actually install it in the house," he said.

As well as developing the technology, the company offers financing through a rent-to-own model. People who can't afford the relatively high upfront cost of a home system can pay for it weekly—often spending less money than they'd spend on kerosene—and own it after a few months.

Even in places where a power grid exists, Walsh said, his technology is a faster and cheaper way to get people power.

"Connecting, even to a grid that runs by your house, costs $500 or $1,000. Oftentimes you have to install an electrical pole or two, and you need an electrical meter and oftentimes there's bureaucracy," he said. 

And in cases like Puerto Rico's, where an entire grid goes down, decentralized solutions like Walsh's could help people get back online quickly and participate in recovery.

"It's really allowing people to leapfrog the electrical grid and go straight from kerosene and basic fuel sources to renewable solar energy," Walsh said.

Research from a number of global nonprofits bolsters his claim. Last year, a report coauthored by ActionAid USA made the case for "decentralized, community-controlled renewable energy access" as one way to tackle both global poverty and climate change. Rural communities, the report found, "are often the last to gain access to energy infrastructure or are overlooked altogether," because they're just not profitable enough. In these energy-poor communities, the burden of collecting fuel often falls on women, who tend to give up education or other economic opportunities in return. The International Energy Agency reached a similar conclusion a few years before that.

The cost of capturing solar power is already comparable with that of burning fossil fuels, and it's set to keep dropping. As that happens, small-scale energy systems will become more and more important. Globally, a quarter of all investment in renewable power went to small-scale installations.

Greenlight has reached about 25 million people and sold 5 million lamps, Walsh estimated. It's an impressive figure, but still leaves more than a billion people who need to be reached.

"Really, the next billion people that are getting connected to electricity are using solar power. It's fantastic."