Although mini-grids are recognized for their light environmental footprint and benefits for community health and safety, they also carry risks that could negatively impact communities and the environment. Decision making about a mini-grid must be informed by environmental, health and safety (EHS) risks. These risks affect people differently based on gender, age, ethnicity, health, livelihoods and economic status. It is necessary to understand EHS risks and incorporate measures to monitor them and mitigate negative impact. Mini-grids have three kinds of potential EHS impacts: direct, indirect and cumulative.
EHS Impacts of Mini-Grids
- Direct Impacts
- Land use and land use change
- Localized air, water and soil pollution
- Battery waste pollution
- Water diversion or impoundment
- Health and safety impacts on workers and communities
- Indirect Impacts
- Material production
- Fuel source production
- End-user industry
- Equity of access
- Cumulative Impacts
- Air pollution
- Waste production
- Fuel sourcing
- Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of power generation and supply chain activities
- Population effects on threatened biodiversity
Further Explanation of Key Points
Mini-grids may have direct EHS impacts depending on their particular technology and design and the time and location of the project. Detailed information on the potential direct EHS impacts of mini-grids, including energy sources, distribution lines and batteries, can be found in the Resources section. Potentially significant direct impacts include:
- Land Use and Land-use Change
- This impact applies to distribution lines, power houses, access roads, etc.:
- Soil erosion and water pollution from construction
- Deforestation that contributes to habitat loss for wildlife and economic loss for communities (such as food sources, pest control, water storage and erosion control)
- Wildlife mortality (such as birds and bats) resulting from collisions and electrocutions
- Encroachment on protected areas or loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity
- Localized Pollution
- Types of pollution include:
- Air pollution (such as from fossil fuels and bioenergy)
- Water and soil contamination from waste and byproducts (such as from bioenergy, fossil fuels and battery leakage)
- Battery Waste Management
- Depending on the type of battery used in solar and wind systems, there could be hazardous materials, such as lead or cadmium, that need special handling and disposal systems. Battery manufacturers realize the hazardous effects of batteries and have started setting up centers to recycle them.
- Water Diversion or Impoundment
- Hydropower facilities that use dams to store river water in reservoirs may alter the water’s location and flow. Water diversion or impoundment can affect people as well as plants and wildlife that depend on access in certain locations. Changes can also impact water quality and change land uses.
- Health and Safety Impacts on Workers and Communities
- Electricity is, by nature, dangerous if not properly handled by those who build/install systems and those who use electricity in their homes or commercially. Mini-grid systems should be built and installed by trained professionals according to manufacturer requirements and best practices in electrical engineering. End users should be trained in correct use of the equipment before using it so that they understand its limitations, proper usage and all relevant safety requirements. This is particularly important in areas that have limited experience with electricity.
The indirect impacts of mini-grids originate primarily through the sourcing of materials and fuel, but can also result from the end use of the generated electricity.
- Material Production
- Panel production requires the mining of silica and metals, and the solar panel manufacturing process can produce air emissions and toxic waste.
- Fuel Source
- Biomass-based energy, which involves the combustion of a feedstock to generate electricity, has impacts on air quality, water use, land use and life cycle global warming emissions.
- End-user Industry
- Access to electricity often leads to the development of industrial activity, which may have environmental impacts through increased use of materials and the production of waste streams.
- Equity of Access
- Access to energy can create or exacerbate tensions between populations and should be carefully planned, taking into account existing social dynamics, vulnerabilities and engagement with beneficiaries. Land tenure may be based on traditional use and documentation may be unclear or nonexistent, requiring due diligence at the outset of a project to clarify land ownership.
- Cumulative Impacts
- Air pollution
- Waste production
- Fuel sourcing
- GHG emissions of power generation and supply chain activities
- Population effects on threatened biodiversity
Even when the direct or indirect environmental impacts are minimal for a single mini-grid, several mini-grids can result in significant cumulative impacts.
For example, batteries for energy storage for a single mini-grid can be contained without causing significant pollution. However, hundreds of batteries in an area without a system for recycling or disposal can lead to significant soil and groundwater contamination, with noticeable public-health impacts.
Another example is the ongoing debate over the cumulative environmental impacts of bioenergy initiatives, driving impacts on global food and land-use systems.
What are Potential and Actual Mini-grid Impacts?
Several contextual factors determine whether potential mini-grid impacts become actual impacts, as well as the significance of those impacts.
Baseline Environmental Conditions
Baseline environmental conditions reflect the state of the environment before a project begins. The potential environmental impact of an activity is assessed by comparing potential impacts to the baseline environmental condition. The baseline environmental condition includes all aspects of the current regulatory and policy environment, such as current land-use plans, economic policies that might impact development and current climate variability. Understanding and documenting baseline environmental conditions are essential in order to allow for proper monitoring of risks once a project is implemented. Assessing the baseline environmental condition takes into account, for example, the following questions:
Questions to Determine Baseline Conditions
- How much has human activity already impacted the site?
- For example: Impact on land already used for growing crops vs. land that remains relatively pristine or natural
- Are there vulnerable or sensitive areas near the project?
- For example: National forests, wetlands and protected species
- Are there human health concerns related to environmental conditions?
- For example: Air or water pollution
- What are the current land uses in the project area?
For example: Degradation—Resource depletion such as air, water and soil
Resilience—Farming systems’ resilience such as soil, water and communities
Where EHS regulations are strong and enforced—including for construction, energy systems, resource extraction, pollution control, protected areas and occupational health and safety—they may ensure that a mini-grid project does not harm the local environment. On the other hand, poorly regulated areas are more vulnerable to the negative EHS impacts of a mini-grid. In developing a plan for mitigating EHS risks, it is important to assess national, regional, municipal or community-based regulations from the outset. Market forces typically discourage all but the most proactive project developers from proposing their own regulations, because mitigation measures almost always raise project costs. Proactive and market-conscious regulatory bodies or active and informed community engagement are essential to striking the right balance between community needs for power against the environmental risks of providing it through mini-grids.
Once the EHS risks are understood, mitigation of potential impacts can be incorporated through project design and management. A successful management system is essential to mitigate impacts, from ensuring that the correct inputs are used (i.e., biomass determined to be sustainable, as opposed to primary forest resources), to conducting regular system maintenance and practicing environmental monitoring.
It is important that the size of the project, and the EHS impacts resulting from the project’s size, be analyzed as part of the environmental review. However, there is no set scale at which the potential impacts become significant, as this depends on the particular location and design of the project.
Environmental and Social Assessments
The assessments in the text box are examples of formal processes to examine the environmental risks of an activity and plan for the mitigation of negative impacts.
- Types of EHS Assessments
- Environmental assessment (EA)
- Social impact assessment (SIA)
- Strategic environmental assessment (SEA)
Part of the assessment process involves comparing alternative options on the basis of environmental and community impacts. Full environmental assessments may be necessary if the risks are particularly high (such as a mini-grid located in or near a protected area). In other cases, less comprehensive reviews may be sufficient.
An EA assess the environmental consequences of a plan, policy, program or actual projects prior to decision making. EAs provide sufficient evidence and analysis to determine whether there is a need to prepare an EIA.
An EIA is the process of evaluating the environmental impacts of actual projects. USAID has established EIA procedures to implement National Environmental Policy Act requirements. The USAID environmental compliance regulation is Title 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 216. These procedures identify actions required to mitigate and monitor anticipated impacts from projects.
An SIA evaluates intended and unintended social consequences of a plan, policy, program or projects and any social change processes invoked by those interventions.
An SEA is an evidence-based tool that uses assessment methods and techniques to ensure that environmental considerations are fully included and addressed at an early stage in the decision making of plans, policies, programs or projects. For the most part, an SEA is conducted before an EIA is undertaken.
Impact Mitigation Options
When negative EHS impacts occur, mitigation measures are needed. Mitigation refers to avoiding, minimizing, rectifying or compensating for adverse impacts. Measures should be incorporated into a mini-grid project through environmentally sensitive design, and they must be monitored and adjusted as needed.
The off-grid rural electrification Mitigation Momentum project in Ethiopia, for example, is supporting the development of Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) to increase rural electrification by creating clean mini-grids, replacing fossil and traditional alternatives. One of the NAMA components includes an environmental impact and feasibility study for five pilot projects.
Populations Vulnerable to Environmental, Health and Safety Impacts
EHS impacts do not affect all stakeholders equally; some populations may be disproportionately impacted.
- Men, who are often those most prominently employed in construction, operations and maintenance are more vulnerable to risks at the site of the mini-grid.
- Women often spend more time in the home and may be vulnerable to risks there, such as indoor air pollution and exposure to fumes.
- Low-income or other excluded segments of the population may have subpar electrical connections and appliances, which makes them more vulnerable to electrocutions and fires.
- The young, elderly and sick may be more vulnerable to local air and water pollution, especially when they lack alternative housing options.
Recognizing these differences is important in assessing EHS impacts and designing appropriate mitigation and monitoring strategies. In conducting assessments, project managers should consider how they will consult with vulnerable groups in order to incorporate their viewpoints.
Putting it Into Practice
Identifying and managing EHS impacts is an iterative process throughout the project management life cycle. Specific environmental review and assessment procedures may differ, but the basic principles remain the same. Projects that adequately plan for environmental and social conditions reduce project risk, increase the likelihood of smooth project implementation and ensure a sustainable project that will be well integrated into the local context.
The Annotated Questionnaire: Environmental, Health and Safety Risks provides mini-grid project developers with a series of questions about the EHS impacts throughout the phases of a project life cycle. During the early design stages, the answers to these questions may not be clear, but identifying answers as early as possible will save money and time in the long run and result in more effective EHS management.
The Tracking Checklist: Environmental, Health and Safety Impact Management can be used to track how EHS impacts are addressed throughout the life cycle of a project.
Relevant Case Studies
Bamiyan Renewable Energy Program (BREP). BREP developed a large-scale solar PV mini-grid to replace diesel generators in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan region. As of 2016, the project provides reliable electricity to businesses, government services and more than 2,000 homes. This case study discusses the identification of EHS impacts of a mini-grid project in Afghanistan.
Environmental Impacts and Best Practices
Argonne National Laboratory (2010). A Review of Battery Life-Cycle Analysis: State of Knowledge and Critical Needs.
This literature review presents an evaluation of life cycle inventory studies for six battery technologies.
International Energy Agency (2011). The Role of Energy Storage for Mini-Grid Stabilization.
This document describes several battery and other energy-storage technologies, including a section on environmental impacts.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2012). Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation.
This report is an assessment of literature on the scientific technological, environmental, economic and social aspects of the contribution of six renewable energy sources (bioenergy, direct solar energy, geothermal energy, hydropower, ocean energy and wind energy) to climate change mitigation.
The Cadmus Group Inc. (2014, Draft). USAID Sector Environmental Guidelines: Small-Scale Energy.
This energy-sector specific guideline is USAID’s principal source of environmental guidance. It addresses potential, typical adverse environmental impacts, environmental good practices, environmental mitigation and monitoring guidance and an annotated bibliography of references.
Union of Concerned Scientists (2013). Environmental Impact of Renewable Energy Technologies.
This website provides an overview of the potential environmental impacts of six types of renewable energy: wind power, solar power, geothermal energy, biomass for electricity, hydroelectric power and hydrokinetic energy.
Wisions of Sustainability (2013). Mini-Grid.
This website provides an overview of mini-grids, with several case studies. It includes a general description of environmental risks of mini-grids and a description of environmental issues in each case study.
World Bank (2007). Technical and Economic Assessment of Off-grid, Mini-grid and Grid Electrification Technologies.
This report presents the results of an assessment of the current and future economic readiness of electric power generation alternatives for developing countries. The assessment includes an environmental characterization that focuses on typical environmental impacts from normal operations.