Achieving universal access to electricity by 2030 is a key part of the Agenda for Sustainable Development, and has its own Sustainable Development Goal, SDG 7.1. This is because electricity services are required for almost all aspects of a modern economy, from the cooling of vaccines to irrigation pumping, to manufacturing and running a business. The achievement of SDG 7.1 will require a thoughtful mix of policy, finance, and technology to be designed and implemented at scale. Yet, the pressing need for an electrification ramp-up is not unprecedented. Many countries (now considered “industrialized”) faced similar challenges about a century ago. Although the existing literature covers a great deal of power systems evolution, there is a gap around the specific role and impact of small, isolated power systems in the early stages of electricity uptake. In this paper, we provide insights based on the review of the historical electrification efforts in four (now middle and high-income) countries. The drivers and context of electrification efforts in early stages are described. Those focus particularly on the role of dispersed, small-scale generation systems (mini-grids). Our analysis shows that electrification follows four loosely defined phases, namely: pilot projects, technological roll-out, economic expansion, and social scale-up. We report a selection of historical mistakes and advances that offer lessons of striking importance for today´s energy access efforts, particularly in regards to the development of mini-grids. We find that today, as historically, multi-stakeholder (e.g., planners, regulators, developers, investors, third party actors) collaboration is key and can help build locally adaptable, economically sustainable and community compatible mini-grids that can accelerate—and lower the societal costs of—universal access to electricity.
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