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Whereas countries in the Global North are bound by long-term fossil fuel contracts and old, embedded energy systems, those in the Global South frequently have a different challenge. They have abundant renewable energy resources to harness but their populations lack universal access to centralised energy systems. This means that their future energy system planning is less dependent on decommissioning or repurposing dated infrastructure and they are able to build from the ground up. In places like rural Mali, that often means bringing access to electricity into communities for the first time.

Renewable energy, particularly solar photovoltaics, is particularly well suited to enabling this sort of transformation. Once solar panels are installed they can act as a local microgrid, as they don’t need to be supplied by miles of energy pipelines (as for gas) or wired into a national energy supply (as necessary for centralised fossil fuel generation). The energy can be generated where it will be used, making it easier to install and cheaper than fossil fuels. There are also efficiency benefits because the size and scale of investment may be designed to match the needs of the consumers.

That energy can then transform the lives of local communities. It eliminates the need for time-consuming cooking over smoky fires, and it makes food refrigeration possible, meaning food is fresh and safe to eat for longer. This in turn reduces the time needed for daily firewood gathering and procuring fresh food.

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This could have a huge impact on gender equality. Today, domestic chores like fetching water and firewood, lighting fires and cooking fall almost entirely on women and girls. Each year 3.2 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to household air pollution from cooking stoves, and this risk is borne disproportionately by women and girls, as they spend the most time in smoke-filled homes and near cooking fires. In addition, freeing up the time taken by domestic chores means more time for education or leisure. The addition of electric lights to homes also gives all young people more opportunity to study and do homework in the evenings.

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People can improve their quality of life through entertainment in the form of TV and radio, access to the internet, and cooling technology when the days are too hot. The team also found that minimum access to electricity should match the needs and wants of communities. Clothes irons were in particular demand in places like rural Namibia both for their health benefits (the heat from the iron kills bacteria and parasites on clothes) and so families could look their best for church.

Beyond the home, street lighting would make it safer to walk the streets, and electricity would also enable improvements to public services like healthcare facilities, access to electric bikes and electrified public transport, in turn reducing air pollution.

In short, access to clean renewable energy gives people the ability to live healthier and more comfortable lives with increased opportunities for education, employment and entertainment.


Industrialised countries like the UK have long-established centralised national energy grids, based on fossil fuels both generating electricity and being delivered directly to homes in the form of natural gas. In a city like Manchester, a transition to a zero-carbon energy system would be a total transformation inside and outside the home.

As in Mali, the greatest benefit would be for people on the lowest incomes – almost every home in the UK has access to electricity or gas, but for many it is becoming unaffordable to use.

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The current energy cost crisis exposes the vulnerabilities of relying on a global supply chain and variable commodity prices.

With renewables, the major system cost is the installation and maintenance of the technology. Energy generation comes from harnessing power in free natural systems like the wind, the sun, or the ebb and flow of the tides. Not from burning a highly commodified and politicised single-use product that needs to be extracted from deep in the earth and transported around the world in huge ships and trucks, themselves burning the very thing they are carrying.

In a world with low-cost renewable energy and storage systems widely available, people would no longer need to choose between heating and eating. The use of highly efficient heat pumps instead of gas central heating could reduce household bills even further. Warm houses and regular hot meals would improve people’s quality of life, their mental and physical health, and help stamp out potentially damaging living conditions, like mouldy or damp-ridden houses.

LED bulbs would provide low-cost lighting throughout and people would have Smart meters so they were aware of how much electricity they were using and would never be surprised by their electricity bill. These smart meters will also enable consumers to time their electricity use to coincide with the lowest energy prices. With lower bills, people would have more disposable income bringing benefits to the local economy.

Electric buses would sit alongside the electric tram systems Manchester already has providing clean, low-cost public transport. Even the cars on the streets would be electric, meaning no exhaust fumes and particulate matter in the air, reducing cases of childhood asthma and other respiratory diseases. Potentially saving some of the £42.88 million in NHS and social care costs associated with air pollution in England alone.

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All of this would be possible because of wind- and solar-powered local energy systems, traded with neighbouring localities according to the usual principles of supply and demand. This decentralised energy system would mean greater energy security and end both the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels controlled by other countries and its exposure to fluctuating global oil and gas prices, while meeting our emission reduction targets.