A global transition is occurring in energy systems throughout the world, driven by mounting concerns about climate change and the environmental impacts of energy production and use—as the scale and intensity of our use of energy continues to increase. In the developing world, the pace and nature of the transition are further shaped by the forces of accelerating industrialization and population growth, against a backdrop of widespread poverty and inequality. Ironically, while access to modern forms of energy is typically limited, the energy intensity of many developing economies is comparatively high—contributing to rapid growth in water and air pollution, and in particular, to levels of greenhouse gas emissions that will come to dominate global totals within this century if unchecked.

The Center for Energy in the Developing World, one of the MIT Energy Initiative’s Low-Carbon Energy Centers, is concerned with the energy transition as it will unfold throughout the developing world—from sub-Saharan Africa to South and South East Asia, in Small Island Developing States, and economically struggling communities in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. We are interested in how low-carbon technologies can be used to improve people’s lives in developing countries in the near term by enabling accelerated access to modern forms of energy, and in the long term by underpinning sustainable economic growth.

With the ongoing global secular shift towards electrification—characterized by decarbonization, decentralization, and digitization—the electricity sector is our primary focus area. For the financially distressed electricity utilities of the developing world, many of which struggle to provide access in rural areas, transformational technologies and business models hold great promise. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia especially, decentralized energy technologies such as solar photovoltaic home systems and mini-grids can offer many advantages in terms of cost and performance—transitorily, at least—and new hope for improving lifestyles and economic opportunity in struggling communities. As new technologies become available, the provision and consumption of electricity services are bound to change significantly, with new actors, technologies, and business models. Incumbent utilities will function in a rapidly changing competitive landscape and they, along with policy and regulation, must adapt if they are to survive and thrive. The definition and implementation of regulation and business models that enable the efficient future cooperation and complementarity of diverse modes of provision of electricity services—an integrated framework or vision—will be of the essence and constitute the chief pursuit of the Center.

Key topics in the electricity sector

Goals and approach

The Center for Energy in the Developing World effectively combines engineering, economic, and regulation knowledge to guide the adoption and implementation of policies and business models in the energy sectors of developing countries that are working to accelerate their sustainable development. We apply quantitative models and techniques such as artificial intelligence, geospatial analysis, and optimization to all segments of the energy sector to minimize costs and greenhouse gas emissions. We take a multidisciplinary approach with extensive research collaborations within MIT, as well as with institutions including the International Energy Agency and World Bank, and we work closely with influential think tanks and philanthropic organizations, including the Rockefeller Foundation and Rocky Mountain Institute. We also engage actively with national and state governments, national and international utilities, and major energy companies that share our commitment to accelerated sustainable development.