The UN estimates that 1.4 billion people have no access to electricity, hurting their ability to earn a living or educate their children. But connecting to an electric grid may not be the only solution.
Every year, the UN chooses a social or environmental issue of global importance – such as biodiversity (2010) or microcredit (2005) or sanitation (2008) – to bring attention to the issue or issues, and to drive resources toward solving them. This year, 2012, is the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All.
The UN estimates that 1.4 billion people have no access to electricity, either because energy services are not available or because they cannot afford to pay for them. While that sounds inconvenient to people who can switch on a light bulb or charge their cell phones at any time, the need for energy is about much more than convenience.
Access to energy affects how much time a child can spend on his or her homework; it determines how a family cooks (which has implications for health – traditional cookstoves, for example, are big contributors to respiratory illness) and how much time is spent on this task; and it impacts a person's ability to earn income, whether it's light to keep a shop open at night or fuel to operate an irrigation pump on a farm.
This last piece is the focus of Poor People's Energy Outlook, a new report from Practical Action, a UK-based organization that uses technology to challenge poverty and puts out a major report on various aspects of energy access annually or every other year. The 2010 report focused on energy in the home, an area that covers lighting, cooking, space heating and cooling, and information and communications. The 2012 report focuses on the impacts that access to energy has on the ability of the world’s poorest people to earn a decent living.
Ultimately, it argues that when poor people have the sustainable energy access that is necessary for enterprise activities, it becomes possible to escape the cycle of poverty that has trapped so many people around the world.
For examples of the crucial role that energy plays, the Practical Action report points to a grocery shop in Nepal where the owner makes his income from charging cell phones and selling, in addition to standard items like bread and candy, cold drinks from his refrigerator. But an energy crisis has brought cuts to the regional power supply, and the owner has had to close the shop early and cannot sell cold drinks, both of which have reduced his income.
Power cuts have also hurt Subash, who runs a small carpentry workshop in the same village as the grocery store. Since he can no longer support his family also because of power cuts, he said his wife and children have had to start rearing cattle and finding firewood to help out.
Stories just like this one are countless around the world, where if one piece in the larger puzzle of economic struggle is misplaced, the whole game is thrown off. If the income-generator of the family cannot make ends meet, responsibilities often fall to children, who then miss days of school, or an education entirely – one of the factors that makes poverty a hard-to-overcome cycle.
Albert Butare, Rwanda's former Minister of State for Infrastructure, drives this home further: East African economies are driven largely by agriculture and small enterprises, which are not major energy consumers.
"This makes it less attractive for private enterprises to offer services in this sector, which compounds the problem of having limited infrastructure available," he says in the report. "Without infrastructure (including clean energy services), it remains very difficult to persuade skilled people to move back into rural areas, leading to a shortage of trained teachers, nurses, engineers etc. in rural areas."
Drew Corbyn, energy consultant for Practical Action, explained that access to energy is not a miracle solution – that energy alone cannot solve people's problems, but that it's necessary before other steps can truly help.
"Energy is not the be-all and end-all. It is an enabler. To realize increased incomes, you need many other factors," he said, such as business skills, access to markets, appropriate policies, and regulations.
But the bottom line, he said, is "Energy access is a prerequisite for development. Energy is important for all development goals. It's required in the home, in enterprise, and community service."
And because energy is required in these different realms of life, Practical Action doesn't prioritize which energy needs should be met first. Instead, the organization advocates what it calls "total energy access."
This approach contrasts with that of other organizations that Corbyn said look at the supply side of the issue and define energy access in terms of grid electricity or use of kerosene, for example.
"If we only consider energy access as using, say, grid connection – so for example, you discount a solar lantern or a solar home system as having energy access – I think all of the money would then flow to areas which are easily connected to the grid," he said. "It would potentially mean that a lot of the efforts and resources aren't going into technologies which are actually a lot more appropriate for certain poor households and that can meet poor people's energy service needs.
"I think there is a danger if the definition of energy access is too narrow or too focused on grid electricity or just simply modern fuels – then the full range of benefits won't be realized," he added. "We're looking at the way that energy is used, in terms of the lighting and cooking, which actually brings you much closer to the potential development benefits."
Corbyn is optimistic that the UN's initiative this year will drive attention to the issue of energy access, which was not one of the Millennium Development Goals and has been left out of much of the global conversation around poverty and development. The Poor People's Energy Outlook report lays out a framework for action that Practical Action calls an energy access ecosystem. There are specific recommendations in the report for governments, civil society, international institutions, and the donor and private sectors.