28 November 2012

Against "Modern Energy Access"

Access to energy is one of the big global issues that has hovered around the fringes of international policy discussions such as the Millennium Development Goals or climate policy, but which has been getting more attention in recent years. In my frequent lectures on climate policy I point out to people that 1.3 billion people worldwide lack any access to electricity and an 2.6 billion more cook with wood, charcoal, tree leaves, crop residues and animal waste (an additional 400 million cook with coal).

The "success" scenarios of climate advocates hoping to power the world with carbon-free energy almost always leave a billion or more people in the dark and several billion cooking with dirty fuels. Sometimes, magic is invoked to suggest that "electricity can be brought to everyone" without appreciably increasing carbon emissions. Of course, if we could bring electricity to the 1.3 billion without any access with no effect on emissions, then we could probably do it for 6 billion others.

There is a devil in the details which helps us to keep the energy poor out of view while we debate issues important to rich people, like climate change. That is the very definition of "energy access." The International Energy Agency explains some of the difficulties in defining energy access and gives its definition as follows:
There is no single internationally-accepted and internationally-adopted definition of modern energy access. For our energy access projections to 2030, the World Energy Outlook (WEO) defines modern energy access as “a household having reliable and affordable access to clean cooking facilities, a first connection to electricity and then an increasing level of electricity consumption over time to reach the regional average”. By defining it at the household level, it is recognised that some other categories are excluded, such as electricity access to businesses and public buildings that are crucial to economic and social development, i.e. schools and hospitals.

Access to electricity involves more than a first supply connection to the household; our definition of access also involves consumption of a specified minimum level of electricity, the amount varies based on whether the household is in a rural or an urban area. The initial threshold level of electricity consumption for rural households is assumed to be 250 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year and for urban households it is 500 kWh per year. The higher consumption assumed in urban areas reflects specific urban consumption patterns. Both are calculated based on an assumption of five people per household. In rural areas, this level of consumption could, for example, provide for the use of a floor fan, a mobile telephone and two compact fluorescent light bulbs for about five hours per day. In urban areas, consumption might also include an efficient refrigerator, a second mobile telephone per household and another appliance, such as a small television or a computer.
I have found when you start talking in terms of "kilowatt-hours per year" people's eyes glaze over. And when I am lecturing about "energy access" students might look up from their smart phone, tablet or laptop to register a look of understanding: "Energy access -- yeah, I have that, gotcha."

Actually I want to tell them, you have wayyyyy more than that. To better explain this issue I have made up the following graph.
When "energy access" is used by organizations like the IEA, they mean something very different than what you, I or my students might take the term to mean in common parlance. (And note, this is no critique of the IEA, they have done excellent work on energy access issues.) The graph above provides a comparison of the 500 kWh per year household threshold for "energy access" used by the IEA to a comparable number for the United States (both numbers are expressed in per capita terms, so 100 kWh per person from IEA and data on US household electricity consumption here and people per household here).

A goal to secure 1.3 billion people access to 2.2% of the electricity that the average American uses might be characterized as a initial start to more ambitious goals, but it is not a stopping point (and again, IEA recognizes that energy access is a process, but this gets lost in broader discussions).

We do not label those who live on $1 per day as having "economic access" -- rather they are desperately poor, living just above the poverty line. Everyone understands that $1 a day is not much. Very few people get that 100 kWh per year is a pitifully small amount of energy. Therefore, I suggest that we start talking in terms of  "energy poverty" measured as a percentage of the average American (or European or Japanese or Australian or whatever energy rich context you'd prefer as a baseline, the results will be qualitatively the same). To use the IEA numbers, one would be in "energy poverty" with access to less than 2% of the energy access enjoyed by those in the rich world.

It is bad enough that the energy poor are largely ignored in our rich world debates over issues like climate change. It is perhaps even worse that our "success stories" often mean creating scenarios where the energy poor attain just 2% of the access to energy that we enjoy on a daily basis. The frustrating irony of course is that the issues that rich world environmentalists most seem to care about might be best addressed by putting energy poverty first, but that is a subject for another time.


  1. Whenever climate change and energy are discussed, it doesn't take long to get 'the real problem is population' - often in all caps and exclamation points Those most worked up about climate are the neo-malthusians. And they see your 'energy-poor' as victims only as long as they are energy-poor. The day they start connecting to a grid, they'll be part of the problem. So the last thing the hair-on-fire climate change true believers want is for Africans to get their homes wired. That's not an improvement - it's a tragedy.

    This is a simple matter. If you believe the planet currently houses a few billion too many people, and you know you're not part of the excess, then the other people must be the excess. And hundreds of millions of Africans and Asians waiting to plug in lights and washing machines and televisions are the excess. The last thing wanted is to give them what we have.

  2. Nice post.

    You also alluded to the residential/commercial+industrial demand issue but didn't put a number on it. The residential electricity consumption number looks like the 900 kwh/month average US household use divided by say 2.5 people per household average, but of course per capita overall electricity consumption in the US is nearly 13000 kwh/year - which is equally important from a societal standpoint.

  3. Roger, thank you for that, the context and perspective are very interesting.
    You say the IEA accept the measure of household use leaves out that used by schools, businesses and other social infrastructure.
    I suspect that any increase in household use by the "energy poor" would have to be matched by these other users - do you have any rough measure (perhaps in percentage terms) what this is likely to be?

  4. -2-Unknown

    Thanks, agreed.


    Thanks, in the US the additional energy use is 2-3x the household per capita, or as Unknown says, about 13,000 kWh/yr per capita. There is a lot of variation across states, more than a factor of two.

  5. Hi,

    Here's a good webpage to put the 100 kWh/year per capita into perspective:



  6. I'll propose an alternate definition of energy poverty.

    Anyone who can afford to maintain a temperature range in his/her living space of 10F or less is energy wealthy(I.E. 68F winter,78F summer)
    , 20F is middle class(I.E 65F winter,85F summer), more then 30F is poverty.

    Using this measure someone living in Boston who can only afford to heat to 60F and doesn't have air conditioning may be 'energy poorer' then someone living in Mumbai that has neither heat nor air conditioning.

    The spread of average daily low and average daily high in Mumbai is 66F to 92F.

  7. Harrywr2:

    That's an interesting and practical definition. Perhaps not comprehensive, but it does consider context when distinguishing between necessity and luxury. This offers similar insight to when we consider cost-of-living for an area in order to define indigence. Or nutritional requirements in the context of environment, levels of exertion, and physiological constitution, necessary to maintain optimal health.

    From an economic perspective, it suggests that integration of individuals with disparate means will increase the perceived number of indigent individuals, which will require welfare payments to compensate, thereby distorting a market causing it to produce false signals leading to a corrupted pricing model. From a social perspective, it suggests that integration of individuals with disparate character will engender a similar corruption.

  8. This is a very useful perspective. Thank you, Roger.

    Just to get concrete about some things you mention:

    One interesting aspect of energy poverty is that a small amount of electricity can go a very long way at improving quality of life for someone who's desperately poor. Simply running one CFL bulb for several hours a night in rural Bangladesh significantly increases the amount of studying a child can do, something that parents value enormously.

    Traveling through rural Bangladesh I have seen miles and miles of power line strung up but never energized, while even in the poorest villages there are many houses with inexpensive solar panels made affordable by financing arrangements from Grameen Shakti, BRAC, and other organizations.

    This access to solar electricity addresses one aspect of energy poverty by providing enough to run lights, a fan, a radio or television, and charge mobile phones. But the much greater amounts of energy needed for cooking remain a big problem. The typical household in rural Bangladesh must spend about 200 hours per year gathering dung, leaves, sticks, firewood, etc. as cooking fuel. The opportunity cost of gathering biomass fuel instead of pursuing other work adds 50% to the direct cost of energy. In addition, burning biomass indoors creates a huge health problem that could be avoided if cleaner (meaning cleaner inside the house, not necessarily renewable) energy sources were available.

    Solar has worked very well for the first step of lighting and running small appliances, but does not scale well to address cooking or running major appliances, such as refrigerators.

    Studies by the World Bank and others have demonstrated that access to even small amounts of electricity can significantly improve the income of a rural household in Bangladesh by enabling people to work longer hours into the night or add a new line of work at home to their daytime jobs. But again, once you pluck that low-hanging fruit (something solar can address), there's no clear way to supply larger amounts of energy that would permit industrialization in rural areas. Even providing enough electricity to reliably run irrigation pumps in paddy fields is not currently possible.

    Meanwhile, the recent deadly fire at a garment factory outside Dhaka connects to this because Bangladesh has no domestic source of petroleum and exporting garments is an important source of foreign currency with which to buy petroleum. It's hard for the government to crack down on abuses in the export sector if it needs the foreign earnings to buy oil.

    Energy poverty permeates the economic obstacles Bangladesh faces as it seeks to move its people from poverty to a comfortable and secure standard of living.

  9. "Very few people get that 100 kWh per year is a pitifully small amount of energy."

    To put it in other terms, 500 kW-h is enough to keep one (1) 60 W lightbulb on all year.

  10. How about this: "energy subsistence", that amount of electricity consumption that is so tiny as to hardly be worth discussing as belonging in a 'modern' household, so little in fact that if you take it away it really doesn't change that much in the household's economy. With one or two compact fluorescent bulbs 5 hours a day, that household is going to have secondary sources of illumination and everything else just to 'subsist' [or they just go back to living like people in the dark ages and all go to bed when it gets dark outside, and with the appropriate levels of poverty and starvation].

    I'm talking about "subsistence" in much the same way that a 'subsistence farmer' who has managed to acquire a couple of steel tools, a cooking pot and utensils, maybe even a tractor and plow, can be said to be modern - essentially neolithic in household economy but some benefits of 'modernity' have managed to trickle down, probably second hand, cast-off, repaired, re-purposed or whatever. I don't think we are talking here about "living just above the poverty line" I think we are talking about genuine poverty, the real grinding thing - just not starvation.

    So, maybe that is another possible demarcation line: 'energy starvation'.

    Has anyone here actually tried to live on 680watt*hr per day for a year or two? raise a family? - that's something like a single 100watt solar panel - for a family of five, it's a nice luxury to be sure, but you can do without it because its simply not enough to make you household work in the first place - without starvation becoming a real issue.

  11. This is the true travesty - not wherever the missing heat might be hiding.

  12. Important topic, excellent presentation and posts.
    A timely reminder we should always ask ourselves if we got our priorities right.

  13. And the reality...