More people grid-connected, but is that energy access?

Monday (18th May) saw the first release of the summary of the World Bank’s new report on Progress Toward Sustainable Energy – Global Tracking Framework 2015 at the Sustainable Energy for All Forum in New York.

The report measures how the world is progressing toward Sustainable Energy for All, tracking country-level indicators for energy access, renewable energy and energy efficiency. The headlines are that between 2010 and 2012 we made good progress in terms of access to electricity access (up from 83% to 85%). In clean cooking, the figures hardly changed at all (from 58% to 59%).

Energy Access Tiers, Kinshasa, GTF summary report pg 32

Energy Access Tiers, Kinshasa, GTF summary report pg 32

What may go un-noticed is the section towards the end about how “traditional methods for measuring energy access significantly underestimate the scale of the challenge”. They illustrate this with findings from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Just counting electricity connections says nothing about the quality of that connection. So for Kinshasa, it shows that although the majority (90%) of residents are officially grid-connected, they are hugely under-electrified. “There are extensive limitations in hours of service, unscheduled blackouts and voltage fluctuations. The reality is that the streets of Kinshasa are dark on most nights and that few households can actually use the electrical appliances they own.” A fully-functioning grid connection should be rated ‘5’ – at the top of the scale. But in Kinshasa, only 0.5% of the population enjoy this level of quality, and 41% have access at Tier 0 or Tier 1 meaning they have electricity for less than four hours a day with 1-2 hours in the evening.

How many of the 6.2 billion people with an electricity connection on the planet remain ‘under-electrified’? Anecdotal evidence indicates the problem is widespread.

There are few studies, but findings from our work applying these same tier levels to examples of grid-connected, but remote villages in India and Kenya found a similar pattern (Practical Action Consulting: Utilising Electricity Access for Poverty Reduction). None of the households we surveyed there made it to Tier 3 levels of access which we are arguing is a reasonable cut-off point along these tiers for saying that a person has sufficient energy for it to be truly enabling. Of course, for them to take full advantage many other things would need to be in place, but its absence limits people’s ability to climb out of poverty.

Energy Access Tiers from Practical Action Consulting research Kenya and India

Energy Access Tiers from Practical Action Consulting research Kenya and India

At the same time, counting grid connections ignores the improvements in electricity access brought about through mini-grids, solar-home systems and other off-grid solutions. There remains the unspoken perception that these are a ‘second-best’. However, our findings from India and Kenya show that against some parameters, they are as good as the grid (for example in terms of duration / availability) and on others in particular reliability, they out-perform. The measure of reliability is whether there are more than three unscheduled outages per week of more than 30 minutes each. In 2012, the blackouts in India were widely reported highlighting some systemic problems which will be difficult to overcome.

Tiers for hours of available energy for grid compared to mini-grid in Kenya

Tiers for hours of available energy for grid compared to mini-grid in Kenya

Practical Action, along with a coalition of 21 other civil society organisations is calling for this proposed framework for measuring energy access to be adopted globally as part of the Sustainable Development Goals due for approval in the autumn this year. This is because it provides a more accurate picture, and will help put off-grid solutions on a similar footing to grid-extension.

The World Bank’s full report (due for release in June) also includes agreed frameworks for measuring energy access not only for households but also for productive uses and community facilities – giving a properly rounded picture of the energy access needed for development. This took its cue from Practical Action’s Total Energy Access framework, as elaborated in our Poor People’s Energy Outlook. The insights gained from measuring in this way will be essential for assessing the full range of poor people’s energy needs and deserves greater attention.

Source: ODI and Oxfam America

How are these findings reflected in financing in the energy sector? Unsurprisingly, as this excellent infographic from ODI / Oxfam America shows for sub-Saharan Africa, business-as-usual is continuing. The grid (and industrial power) continues to be prioritised over extension to those currently without, and over off-grid solutions. Cooking remains a neglected sector even though the investment needs are lower. This is what needs to change if we are to meet our goal of meaningful, truly enabling energy access for all by 2030.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Source: ODI and Oxfam America

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