By Benjamin M. Attia
Access to electricity is a key catalyst correlated with economic development.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently estimated that over 1.5 billion people do not have access to affordable electricity, representing one quarter of the world’s population . In the absence of aggressive new policies and significant financing, it is estimated that that number will drop to only 1.3 billion by 2030 . The United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative, which is working toward a goal of global universal energy access by 2030, estimates that approximately 600 million of these unelectrified people live in Sub-Saharan Africa . This number is expected to rise to approximately 645 million by 2030 under a business-as-usual scenario due to expected explosive population growth [2, 3]. This widening gap of energy access is a complex and multidimensional problem and represents an important hindrance to economic development and social change in the developing world.
Historically, the access gap since the initial commercialization of electricity has “consistently been between 1 and 2 billion people… as grid expansion has roughly paced global population” growth . This suggests that the access gap is a reflection of a persistent lack of equity in distribution. In fact, in 1983, Krugmann and Goldemberg famously estimated that at 1983 global consumption levels, the “energy cost of satisfying the basic human needs” of every person on the planet was well within the available supply of energy resources [5, p. 60].
Today, the consumption and distribution inequalities are even more pronounced. In 2011, the average American consumed 13,240 kilowatt hours (kWh) per person per year, while the average Ethiopian consumed only 56 kWh . Further, across all of Sub-Saharan Africa, annual per capita kWh use is one-sixth the load requirements of a relatively efficient American refrigerator . Globally, the poorest three-quarters of the world’s population comprise less than ten percent of total energy consumption [8, p. 5].
The inequities that underline energy poverty and energy access are also fundamentally connected to climate change. Looking ahead, the world’s demand for electricity is estimated to increase by more than 70% by 2040, and the World Bank and IEA estimate that a doubling in installed energy capacity will be necessary to meet the anticipated growing demands of emerging markets , . Despite the accelerating paradigm shift to low-carbon and renewable energy generation technologies, there is a paradoxical irony to the link between development and climate change which has left the poorest countries with the lowest contributions to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as the most vulnerable and most susceptible to the effects of climate change [11, p. 591, 12]. As markets evolve to value avoided GHG emissions [13, p. 215], reconciling the joint–and possibly conflicting– goals of development through universal energy access and combating climate change will accelerate, but at present, the inequity in energy access is only further exacerbated by the parallel inequities with respect to climate change adaptation measures.
Many scholars agree that access to electricity in itself is not fully sufficient to bring about the required economic and social development to break the cycle of poverty [14, p. 1058, 15, p. 2194]. It has also been widely settled that access to electricity is a key catalyst correlated with economic development and that a lack of electricity access is a key bottleneck to growth , see  for comprehensive rebuttal]. However, approaches for tackling the problems associated with energy poverty are often difficult to scale up because of the difficulties associated with navigating this uneven technical, sociocultural, agricultural, and institutional landscape, and, as will be demonstrated below, the multidimensionality of energy access inhibits scalability of any one catch-all solution.
The IEA estimates that 30% of those without access to electricity would best be served by grid extension, 52.5% would be best served by micro-grids, and 17.5% would best be served by stand-alone energy systems [3, p. 14]. There is a clear need for investment in rural electrification initiatives at all three levels and a clear gap in understanding routes and sinks for effective impact investing [3, p. 14]. National grid extension programs and firms selling small energy systems are generally much better funded than the community-scale solution of micro-grids, despite their significant potential market share and niche ability to provide scale benefits, rapid deployment, flexibility of business models, and energy storage, security, and reliability [3, p. 15]. The micro-grid space is rife with opportunity to build markets, innovate new business models, develop new financing mechanisms, and provide the sustainable development benefits of renewable electrification and increased economic potential.
As one development professional put it, “If rural [people] have power in their lives, they will have more power over their lives” . Access to electricity is not the answer to the greater global problems of poverty and inequity, but can be a good place to start.
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