Catherine Wolfram at UC Berkeley posted about their paper looking at costs of distributed energy systems in Kenya and concluding that these were too expensive for households compared to connecting to the grid. However, the paper came under immediate criticism.
Here’s my thoughts based on her representation of the paper’s findings, some of which are mirrored by other commentators:
First, the paper talks about costs on one side, but doesn’t put them in perspective to the alternatives. The post lists the cost of the individual systems, but not the expected connection costs to the grid.
Further the paper takes a static look at current costs and doesn’t account for the differential trends in the sets of costs for an home-based system versus connecting to the grid. The latter costs can be expected to be steady or even rising, while it’s well known that both solar and storage costs have fallen rapidly.
Different scales of “grid” also are important. For example, solar projects show scale economies up to about 3 MW but then modular construction flattens the per kW cost. A village microgrid separate from a national central grid may be quite cost competitive.
Finally, the paper appears to lump large hydro in with other utility-scale renewables. The environmental (and economic development) record for large-scale hydro projects in the developing world is dubious at best. There is evidence of significant methane emissions from tropical reservoirs. Habitat is destroyed and poorly designed projects don’t deliver expected benefits. Hydro is by far the largest energy supplier on these grids, and they may be little better than coal from an overall environmental perspective.