By Lucy Stevens, Practical Action

Here in the UK, we take having reliable electricity and gas for cooking and heating for granted. But even for us the prospect of power failures and ‘not keeping the lights on’ is a worrying one. For a staggering 3 billion people on the planet, however, ‘modern energy’ access and all the things that become easier because of it, remains a distant dream.

2015 was an important year for people seeking to change the situation. Energy access was enshrined in global climate agreements, and included in the Sustainable Energy Goals – committing the international community to bringing energy access to everyone in the world by 2030. Despite this, progress remains slow and the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group, is predicting that the number without energy access will increase (not fall) by 1.2 billion by 2030 (IEG, 2015).

The challenge of energy access

Energy is a pre-requisite for meeting each and every Sustainable Development Goal. It sits at the heart of human wellbeing and international development. Without it, rural communities cannot grow economically, education opportunities are limited, and health services damaged, with women often having no option but to give birth by candle light and vital vaccines unavailable due to lack of refrigeration. Likewise, without appropriate, affordable and sustainable energy access, over 3 billion people are left cooking on dirty and deadly open fires – with indoor air pollution, caused by cooking indoors on open fires, killing 4.3 million people a year, the majority of which are women and children. To put it in perspective, this is more deaths than are caused by AIDS, TB and malaria combined – yet unclean cooking practices continue to receive minimal amounts of public attention or dedicated financial investment. Dirty cooking is a silent killer, with its devastating effects often going unrecognized by decision-makers and communities alike.

Why not just provide everyone with an electricity grid connection?

Although the march of electricity pylons across the continent and millions of households connecting looks promising, the reality is fraught with problems. Grid electricity often performs very poorly, especially as demand for power increases – so much so that in Ghana the ‘Electricity Company of Ghana’ has been renamed by locals ‘Electricity Comes and Goes’. Bringing electricity to rural, isolated areas in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia is also very expensive, requiring huge subsidies if they are to be affordable. New power plants take on average 9 years to come on stream and beyond that, a grid connection will not provide people with all the types of energy they need. In particular, it will not provide an affordable way to cook.

But still, many Ministries of Energy across Africa and Asia remain wedded to the vision of extending national grid electricity. Needless to say, the voices of the energy poor often remain excluded from these big national decisions, and are unable to challenge the status quo.

Energy access planning from the bottom up

Practical Action has been championing energy access for energy-poor communities for more than 30 years, and our flagship policy publication, The Poor People’s Energy Outlook report, is a key part of this agenda. Over the last six years this report has advocated for an approach to energy access provision which reflects the energy needs of the poor – not only at a household level, but also for community services such as schools and clinics, as well as for enterprises and productive uses of energy: for instance, agricultural processing. In October, we launch our newest edition in the series, which creates energy access plans that meaningfully incorporate the needs and priorities of those living in energy poverty. Drawing on case study evidence from Bangladesh, Kenya and Togo, we unpick what it really means to plan for energy access from the bottom up, and what national energy access plans should look like if they listen to those who need access.


Rebalancing the scale in favour of decentralised solutions

What rural communities urgently need, then, are alternative approaches to meet their energy needs. The good news is that the technology is developing rapidly and costs are plummeting. We must re-balance global and national attention towards decentralised solutions for energy access, such as solar home systems and mini-grids: embracing them as smaller, more sustainable, and far more economically viable for dispersed, rural communities. They are also overwhelmingly faster to deploy, taking around one month for a solar home system and four months for a mini-grid.

The imperative of energy access is now recognised by major development players including UK AID, USAID, and the United Nations Foundation, however, even where there is an intention and willingness to deliver off-grid energy access at scale, there is uncertainty about what options will be the most appropriate.

Poor people at the heart of the agenda

Energy poverty remains one of the primary symptoms and causes of poverty in the developing world. We must continue to work towards developing sustainable markets and appropriate financing initiatives for decentralised renewable energy provision, for the billions of people today who lack any form of access to modern energy services.

In order to radically change this situation we are calling for energy planning approaches that listen to the experiences, needs and demands of those living in energy poverty – which means:

  • Embracing decentralized technologies which are smaller, faster, and require different financing models to the traditional grid;
  • Prioritizing cooking as on par with electricity access, recognizing its essential role in achieving broader development aims;
  • Recognizing the differentiated energy access requirements of women and men, and mainstreaming women’s priorities in energy access plans at the national level; and
  • Measuring energy access holistically in terms of longer-term development goals: such as numbers of jobs created, agricultural productivity increased and children educated – rather than simply by counting numbers of connections and megawatts generated.

To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we must bring energy to everyone well within that timeframe. Implementing these four recommendations is absolutely vital to this global agenda and will also ensure the energy-poor get a say in their own lives and futures. Decision-makers cannot afford to continue ignoring the voices of those rooted in the day-to-day realities of energy poverty. Let us empower the world, not just power it.

This article was written by Dr Lucy Stevens,policy lead on energy access and co-author of the Poor People’s Energy Outlook Report.