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Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder

Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He also holds appointments as a...

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Energy Poverty: Electricity for All

This article was coauthored with Morgan Bazilian, and originally appeared in Issues in Science and Technology (Summer 2013) under the title “Making Energy Access Meaningful.”

In a somewhat inconsequential meeting at the United Nations (UN) in 2009, Kandeh Yumkella, the then Di­rector-General of the UN Industrial Development Or­ganization, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s informally assigned “energy guy”, noted something obvious and profound, namely that, “the provision of one light to poor people does nothing more than shine a light on poverty”. Yet much of an emerging discussion on the crit­ical importance of global energy access as a pathway out of poverty continues to focus on what are, in effect, “one light” solutions. In this essay, we seek to help clarify the challenge of energy access, expose assumptions that are informing pol­icy design in the development and diplomatic communities, and offer a framework for future discussions rooted in the as­pirations of people around the world to achieve energy access compatible with a decent standard of living.

Our distinctly uncomfortable starting place is that the poor­est three-quarters of the global population still only use about ten percent of global energy – a clear indicator of deep and persistent global inequity. Because modern energy supply is foundational for economic development, the international de­velopment and diplomatic community has rightly placed the provision of modern energy services at the center of inter­national attention focused on a combined agenda of poverty eradication and sustainable development. This priority has been expressed primarily in the launching of the UN Sustain­able Energy for All initiative (SE4All). Still, areas of tension and conflict within such an agenda demand further attention, particularly in relation to climate change, as we discuss later in this essay.

Compounding the difficulty of decision-making in such a complex space is that the concept of “energy access” is often defined in terms that are unacceptably modest. Discussions about energy and poverty commonly assume that the roughly two to three billion people who presently lack modern energy services will only demand or consume them in small amounts over the next several decades. This assumption leads to pro­jections of future energy consumption that are not only poten­tially far too low, but therefore imply, even if unintentional­ly, that those billions will remain deeply impoverished. Such limited ambition risks becoming self-fulfilling, because the way we view the scale of the challenge will strongly influence the types of policies, technologies, levels of investment and investment vehicles that analysts and policy makers consider to be appropriate.

As Wolfram and colleagues observe in a recent study, “The current forecasts for energy demand in the devel­oping world may be understated because they do not ac­curately capture the dramatic increase in demand asso­ciated with poverty reduction.” The point is that energy access is not an end per se; rather it is a necessity for moving to vibrant and sustainable social and economic growth. The lower the assumed scale of the challenge, the more likely the focus will turn to incremental change that amounts to “poverty management,” rather than the transformational changes that will be necessary if we are to help billions climb out of poverty.

Old numbers

A first step to better understanding the scale of the en­ergy access challenge is to ask: How much energy is actually needed to enable poverty alleviation—a level we will term “modern energy access”? To answer this question we focus, for simplicity, on electricity services, rather than energy for heat and cooling or transport. Still, answering the question is not simple. World Bank data shown in Figure 1 shows the wide range of what can be meant by “energy access,” and how it differs, on aver­age, both between countries at “full electrification” as well as in those at much lower access rates. This con­siderable spread in average annual household consump­tion levels at different levels of access makes comparing some of the existing analyses tricky.

Let’s turn to places which have modern energy access by any definition of the term, with essentially 100% of residents and the broader economy under full electrifi­cation. The average resident of the United States con­sumes about 13,400 kWh per year, with a large variation by state – households in Maine consume about 40% of those in Louisiana. On average, Europeans general­ly consume considerably less energy than Americans. For instance, based on 2010 data the average resident of Germany consumes about 7,200 kWh per year, with Swedes consuming about 15,000 kWh and Greeks about 5,200 kWh, and on the low end the Bulgarians at about 4,500 kWh, or about 60% of German and a third of US levels. For comparison, the global average in 2010 was just under 3,000 kWh per capita per year, three quarters of Bulgarian consumption, but of course this number is strongly skewed by the enormous concentration of en­ergy use in the industrialized world as well as the large number of people with no access at all.

These numbers for the US, Germany and Bulgaria can be compared to the definitions of energy access that typically provide the basis for policy discussions and analyses. The International Energy Agency is one of the world’s most influential analytical bodies on energy pol­icy and its flagship product, the World Energy Outlook, has played a leadership role for more than a decade in providing analysis and data of the energy access issues. It defines an “initial threshold” for energy access to be 250 kWh per year for rural households and 500 kWh per year for urban households, assuming 5 people per house­hold. This equates to 50-100 kWh/year per person, or about 0.5% of that consumed by the average American or Swede, and 1.7% of the average Bulgarian.

These differences starkly illustrated on Figure 2, which shows various thresholds of per capita energy access. For a sense of scale – the use of a single 60 Watt light bulb four hours per day equates to about 90 kWh over the course of a year (i.e., 60W * 4hr * 365 days). The top thee bars should global per capita energy access implied for 2035 at 2010 levels for the US, Germany and Bul­garia. Included also are the projections of the US Energy Information Agency for 2035 as well as the actual 2010 per capita levels of 2010 from The World Bank. The bar at the bottom of the graph shows the IEA definition of “energy access,” which is obviously small in comparison to the other five bars. The IEA does, however, assume in its analyses a demand of 750 kWh/year per capita by 2030 for new electricity connections.

For its part, the IEA – and other organizations active on the issue – have recognized that achieving energy access is a process, noting, “Once initial connection to electricity has been achieved, the level of consumption is assumed to rise gradually over time, attaining the average regional consumption level after five years. This definition of electricity access to include an initial period of growing consumption is a deliberate attempt to reflect the fact that eradication of energy poverty is a long-term endeavor.”

The World Bank presents a useful scheme for consider­ing various levels of energy access, illustrating different “tiers” of access (Table 1). Still, even the highest level of access in the scheme, Tier 5, implies some 2,121 kWh/year per household of five people, or roughly 420 kWh/capita/year, which, at less than 10 percent of Bulgarian consumption, is still much lower than what typical en­ergy services would imply in even the least energy-con­sumptive wealthy countries.

More than a billion people lack even the minimal lev­els of access to electricity, and policy analyses, national plans, and projects, must start somewhere. Still, achiev­ing minimal levels of energy access is not to be confused with success in achieving goals of modern energy ac­cess. The sorts of policies that would make sense to get large numbers of people over a low and arbitrary thresh­old are very different from those that will underpin sus­tained growth in economies and consumption. Consider that we do not label people who live on more than $1 per day as having “economic access” and address policies toward achieving a $1.25 level, thus still leaving them desperately poor. Everyone understands that $1.25 a day is still not nearly enough. In energy, we often lack such conceptual clarity.

Adding to the challenge of talking clearly about “mod­ern energy access” and more realistic level of unmet en­ergy demand in poor countries is the tendency in many analyses to discuss the issue in terms of household en­ergy use. Energy access has links to all sectors of the economy. By focusing on household energy demand, other sectors of a growing economy can end up being ig­nored in critical power planning exercises and policies. Business and industry growth, for example, is severely constrained in many poor countries not only by a lack of access, but also a lack of access to high quality services, meaning those that are reliable enough to meet the needs of private sector enterprises from hospitals to factories. Access to modern energy services across an economy, not just in the home, is necessary to sustain and support continued economic growth – a reality that must be ac­commodated in projections of future energy needs.

If we aim too low, then there are risks not just in policy failure, but in the opportunity costs of policy success. If more ambitious goals are to be achieved, then some at­tention must also focus on real transformational change. This type of change is often difficult to conceptualize, and difficult to represent in most analytical models using traditional baseline or incremental growth approaches. But our analytical models should not limit our creativity and ambition, especially in light of the reality that many nations, such as Thailand, South Africa, Vietnam and China, have experienced remarkable economic growth and expansion of truly modern energy access for large populations over relatively short periods of time.

New numbers

We now turn directly to the quantitative implications of moving towards much higher levels of assumed future energy demand for poor countries. As an example, con­sider the Obama Administration’s recent announcement of a new “Power Africa” initiative, focused on increasing the electricity generation capacity of sub-Saharan Africa by adding 10 Gigawatts (GW) of capacity, in order to “double access to power.” While such an initiative is to be applauded, placing it into context can help to calibrate the level of ambition.

To raise the entire region of sub-Saharan Africa to the average per capita electricity access available in South Africa (which in 2010 was about 4,800 kWh, similar to the level of Bulgaria) would require 1,000 Gigawatts (GW) of installed capacity – about the equivalent elec­tricity of 1,000 medium-sized power plants. This means that sub-Saharan Africa would need to increase its in­stalled capacity by 33 times to reach the level of ener­gy use enjoyed by South Africans — and 100 times to reach that of Americans. A recent study by Bazilian and others (2012) showed that even a less ambitious tenfold increase, perhaps sufficient to provide full access but at relatively modest levels of electricity consumption, would require a 13% average annual growth rate in gen­erating capacity in sub-Saharan Africa, compared to a historical one of 1.7% over the past two decades. When looked at from the perspective of energy access as the concept is understood in North America and Europe, the magnitude of the energy access challenge is starkly re­vealed.

Still another perspective is provided by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in its 2012 Global Energy Assessment. Figure 3 shows for 10 countries the historical growth in energy access. In 1920, only 35% of Americans had energy access (here shown as “elec­tricity access” defined as “household electrification” at an unspecified level of consumption). This total reached 100% by the mid-1950s or over a period of about 35 years. In contrast, Mexico was at about 35% access in 1930, and has yet to get all the way to the 100% mark. China went from 35% in 1970 to nearly 100% by about 2000, reflecting a very fast rate and in a very large na­tion. India is following a much shallower trajectory, go­ing from about 25% in 1980 to 65% in 2010. How fast and how far can truly modern energy access occur un­der an approach focused on rapidly expanding access to truly modern levels? This is the sort of question where researchers might productively place further attention.

Accelerating a transition to a radically different, and inclusive, energy system is clearly a generational chal­lenge, and provides a just and consequential rationale for much greater attention to innovation in energy systems. A first step in that transition is to properly understand the scale of the challenge. With a sense of scale appro­priate to energy access commensurate with the organiza­tion of modern economies, we are then in a position to discuss the possible costs of achieving such ambitious goals, recognizing that any such discussion is laden with assumptions about economics, technologies and politics – but also that history is replete with examples of nations moving rapidly to achieve greatly increased levels of ac­cess in the context of rapid economic growth.

What sorts of investments might be necessary for achiev­ing modern energy access? Based on recent work done by Bazilian and colleagues (see “recommended read­ings” at the end of this article – 2010b and forthcoming), it would cost about one trillion dollars to achieve the IEA 2012 World Energy outlook definition of total global ac­cess – rising to 750 kWh per capita for new connections by 2030 – and 17 times more to achieve a level of worldwide access equivalent to South Africa or Bulgaria. This massive difference in estimated costs, likely insensitive to the precise accuracy of either number, places a value on the “ambition gap” that results from the difference between a “poverty management” approach to energy access and one that takes seriously the development as­pirations of people around the world. Of course, it is not just cost that changes in the face of such aspirations, but also the sorts of institutions, technologies, infrastructure, policies and other systems required to support broad-based energy services.

Climate interactions

Most readers will have already recognized that our dis­cussion has significant implications for the question of climate change. Former NASA scientist James Hansen expressed his view of the issue with typical candor, when he said, “if you let these other countries come up to the level of the developed world then the planet is done for.” For the most part, however, the ambition gap has kept this uncomfortable dilemma off the table. If one assumes that billions will remain with levels of energy consumption an order of magnitude less than even the most modest definition of modern access, then one can understand the oft-repeated claim that universal energy access can be achieved with essentially no increase in the global emissions of carbon dioxide.

For example, Figure 4 shows the projections of the IEA under its “Universal Access Scenario” for energy con­sumption and carbon dioxide emissions. The minimal consequences to emissions and consumption resulting from this scenario essentially reflect a “poverty main­tenance” level of energy service provision. Emissions increase by such a small amount because new energy consumption increases by a very small amount.

Conflicts between climate and energy priorities deserve a deeper and more open airing in order to help better frame policy options, including the difficult question of trade-offs among competing valued outcomes. The is­sues are playing out right now, but remain largely unac­knowledged. For instance, under US Senate Bill S.329 (2013) the Overseas Private Investment Corporation – a federal agency responsible for backstopping U.S. com­panies which invest in developing countries – is essen­tially prohibited from investing in energy projects that involve fossil fuels, a policy that may have profound consequences in places like sub-Saharan Africa that are seeking to develop oil and gas resources to help alleviate widespread energy poverty. At the same time, a differ­ent US federal agency – the U.S. Export-Import Bank – helped fund a 4.9 GW coal plant (Kusile) in the Republic of South Africa. The coal plant will help serve both in­dustry and households that currently lack access. These simultaneous interventions appear incoherent. Making such issues more transparent, and opening them up to debates with multiple stakeholders with multiple values and success criteria offers the promise of enriching the array of policy options on the table.

The United Nations has attempted to square this circle of climate and energy through the phrase “Sustainable Energy for All.” Still, since value-judgments must be made and priorities established, the UN initiative has explicitly stated a “technology neutral” principle and given primacy to national decision-making, and implicitly has made the goal of universal energy access a “first among equals” of the three sustainable energy goals (the other two relating to renewable energy and energy efficiency). In practice however, as we have emphasized, the trade-offs involved in policies related to climate and energy have often re­ceived less than a full airing in policy debate.


The course of development followed by virtually all na­tions demonstrates that people around the world desire a high-energy future. Our plea is that we begin to rec­ognize that fact, and focus more attention and resources on positively planning for, and indeed bringing about, that future. Achieving universal modern energy access will require transformations – in aspirations, but also, for example, in technological systems, institutions, develop­ment theory and practice, and in new ways to concep­tualize and finance energy system design. Being clear about what modern energy access means, and applying that clarity to the policy discussions galvanized by the 2014-2024 UN “Decade of Sustainable Energy,” can create a foundation for making huge strides in bridging the global equity gap not just in energy but in the new wealth, rising standard of living, and improved quality of life that modern energy access can help to bring.

Ultimately, a focus on energy access at a low threshold limits our thinking, and thus our options. Adopting a more ambitious conception of energy access brings con­flicting priorities, as well as the scale of the challenge, more clearly into focus and makes hidden assumptions more difficult to avoid. Now more than ever the world needs to ensure that the benefits of modern energy are available to all and that energy is provided as cleanly and efficiently as possible. This is a matter of equity, first and foremost, but it is also an issue of urgent practical importance. Economic and technological challenges are hard enough; let us not add a failure of imagination to that mix.

Morgan Bazilian is a senior research scientist at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria. Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor in the Environmental Studies Program and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. This article is reprinted with permission from the authors, and originally appeared in Issues in Science and Technology (Summer 2013).

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Marcus Pun on Sep 24, 2013

Nice discussion. Especially about the comment regarding having more than enough electicity for residential use, there must be enough for infrastructure and development. But obviously you have to start somewhere and somehwere is usually small and residential. Large is not going to be too practical in the immediate future. I do disagree about everyone needing a high energy future. That is a need that depends on technological advancements as well as long established local customs. 

There is one factor to consider in places like the Sahel, where water is the paramount issue. In the latter half of the 20th century there was a major drought in the Sahel that lasted for many decades, changing both the viability of vegetation and crops, and thus the viability of agriculture. (wikipedia the Sahel drought for the history and graphs)

In the 1980’s, out of 50 million or so people, more than a hundred thousand died from famine. Nearly a million were heavily dependent on food aid.  While rainfall has increased somehwat it is still subject to high levels of variability. One of the problems that contiues today is desertification. Aside from water scarcity there was the change from nomadic to agricultural use and the creation of borders in the 20th century which inhibit movement and the traditional use of the land. By having people stay in one place, increased use of local wood for fire for instance placed a strain on the ecosystems and more areas became desertified. Many different methods have been used to “reclaim” some of the desert but the Sahel is still subject to serious droughts, the most recent in 2010, where about a million people were at risk of famine with 350,000 facing startvation. Temperatures climbed in some areas to as high as 121 F. Climate modeling suggests that the Sahel region will face a 25% reduction in average rainfall by 2100. BTW, today the Sahel is inhabited by over 100 million people and that is expected to more than triple by 2050. Education and economic development may be key to reducing that growth and to get substantial education and economic development you do need power. But how much?

Water availability strongly affects the type of energy that can be used. In an area with frequent droughts, how does one utilize fossil fuels on a large scale power production basis when water for coolant is a major issue? For the most part you do not, at least in the immediate future, so it means that most fossil fuel electricity will have to be imported from areas with abundant water via power lines. Both expensive propositions. So what is a cost effective means of starting an electricity economy to layer on top of the agrarian/semi-nomadic economy?

First you determine the primary need for electricity.  Today it is energy for light and communication, followed by process heat and refrigeration of some kind. Lighting is the most important as it would increase productivity for those doing economic activity in the evening, and allow for more reading and study time for children. A lot of light in Africa comes from kerosene lamps and that has problems with health and is a fire hazard. It is also costly.  For many it means spending about 10% of their annual income for fuel, but poorer Africans have to spend up to a third of their income on kerosene.  As for communication, half a million cell phones are in use in the Sub Sahara and that number is growing rapidly. So the need for electricity is already there and in other non-electrified areas of the world. 

The best way it seems is already happening. Small measured efforts to spread solar lighting and small device charging around Africa that will grow over time. For instance there is a NGO called Solar Sister ( and it is described as the “Avon” of solar marketing with more than 400 female distributors in Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania. They are doing “business in a bag”, selling solar-powered lighting and to date have sold more than 54,000 units. Not only is it electrical empowerment but economic empowerment for the women. A very important factor in population control.  How cost effective are solar lights in Africa?  Another NGO, SolarAId, working in Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi sells small solar chargers and lights(1.5-2.5W panesl) at roughtly the same cost as 5 weeks worth of kerosene. More than 300,000 have been sold.  Drawback of course is the 4-5 year lifetime of regchargeable batteries and I wonder if either organization has an exchange program so that batteries don’t end up in landfill. Nevetheless there are a number of benefits aside from those noted above. Less indoor air pollution and reduced GHG generation from lowering the use and transportation of kerosene. Granted a small “green” effort compared to industrialized nations. And if the financial numbers are to be believed, not having the  annual kerosene bill would have a significant financial impact on families in Africa.

So I think what you will see for a long time is the growth of a small energy future for nearly 2 billion people where per household usage is from 20 – 50KWh/year.   In time, as the education and economic levels increase there will be a greater per capita usage as other needs such as additional lighting, more computing and communication, and refrigeration needs are met. But note that you do have 2 billion people that get along without large appliances so socially speaking what will be needed? Recall that time of development determines to some extent the technology used. In the USA we use a lot of copper wire for communication. Within a few years, most if not all of China’s internet will be on fiber-optic cable. Part of the advantage is that China had a lot of new cable connections without any copper infrastructure in place.  China I think has a requirement that all new homes are wired with fiber, not copper.

In a village in the Sahel it is not impossible to envision an entirely wireless network, with maybe a fiber optic cable only going to a central hub, running on solar and batteries, with enough power for a community refrigeration plant instead of individual refrigerators for storing perishable food and medicines. That may be the next step and not much more in the years to come.

We cannot just say that what someone in Massachusetts does determines what someone in the Sahel does. Social constructs are different as are the communities. Local concerns as well. Someone in the Sahel worries about the drought and the next harvest. Food security is paramopount, not a new computer. Major advancements in the standard of living did not really hit the individual in America until there was food security followed by economic security. An abundance of food and time allows for other enterprises to flourish. Subsistance living does not. Areas such as the Sahel are not conducive to food security and so while I think the future energy needs of 2 billion people will be substantial, I do not buy yet the idea that they will come even close in magnitude to the per capita usage of a typical European or American. But their lives will benerfit nevertheless.

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