Energy Access: Widely Discussed, Widely Misunderstood

by Rik
October 27, 2014

It is well known that at least 1.3 billion people live without electricity. At first glance the staggering number seems to capture the scope of the challenge to achieve universal electricity access, but it implicitly reinforces a dualistic understanding of the problem that masks a far more complex reality. Should efforts to increase electricity access focus exclusively  on those 1.3 billion only? If they get access to 10-watt portable solar charging systems, have we solved the problem? Of course not. The status of a household’s electricity access is not simply a question of whether the household has a connection or not. Rather, it depends on several additional factors that must be evaluated in order to adequately understand energy needs and measure progress toward eliminating energy poverty.

Fortunately, researchers have been working to develop a more comprehensive framework for measuring energy access, which was first proposed in the SE4ALL Global Tracking Framework and later described in an article from the World Bank. It identifies eight energy access criteria that are assessed in order to rank a household’s level of energy access on a five tier scale. The criteria are capacity, duration and availability, reliability, quality, affordability, legality, convenience, and health and safety.

The tiered, multidimensional approach is useful for governments and development organizations that seek to understand the most urgent needs and the likely outcomes of specific policy interventions, but its usefulness also extends to the private sector.

Understanding a population’s specific energy needs is key to effective service delivery. There is evidence that at least some of the criteria from the SE4ALL framework are not only important from a development perspective, but also for increasing the value of electricity service. A report by the United Nations Foundation argues that convincing prospective off-grid consumers to sign up for service can be challenging if an insufficient quantity of electricity is available to power income generating equipment or support entertainment activities such as watching television. Further, the report suggests that customers have a higher willingness to pay for electricity service if it is available for a long duration each day and if high quality and reliability can be expected.

Another advantage of a multidimensional approach is that the merits of alternative solutions to energy access can be evaluated more accurately and it turns out that distributed microgrids tend to be the preferred rural electrification technology when multiple dimensions of energy access are considered. For example, if electricity access above tier one (based on the above described framework) is desired, microgrids have advantages over other off-grid electrification technologies such as portable charging systems and small solar home systems with respect to capacity, duration and availability, reliability, quality, affordability, convenience, and safety.

Multidimensional evaluations of energy access are more impact focused, which will lead to market solutions that maximize the capabilities of the energy poor, and leave little room for poor quality, short term energy solutions and arbitrary energy access targets.

Image source: ESMAP, 2014. A New Multi-tier Approach to Measuring Energy Access.