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In the debates over how best to bring electricity to the billion-plus poor people who live every day without it, a common refrain is that we can replicate the telecommunications leapfrog with energy too. It’s an attractive notion. Instead of building telephone landlines, billions of poor people jumped right to mobile phones. Why not just do the same with electricity and, instead of building a grid and big dirty power plants, just go right to off-grid solar? 

Yet “the supposed analogy between cell phones and distributed solar is misplaced” argues UC Berkeley’s Catherine Wolfram because of (1) cost, (2) benefits of centralized networks, (3) actual development goals, and (4) quality. She concludes:

I worry that the idea of energy leapfrogging lulls us into ignoring the difficult development versus environment tradeoffs involved with bringing electricity and other improved energy services, like motorized vehicles, to people who do not currently have them... .

Modern energy can transform people’s lives, so it’s unfair to insist that households who do not currently have electricity use the high cost, zero-carbon alternative...let’s stop talking about energy leapfrogging and keep our eyes on the goal of achieving cost-effective, low-carbon solutions.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.