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What Does 'Energy Access' Even Mean Anyway?

Patricia Levi's picture
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Member since 2018
  • 4 items added with 4,371 views
  • Nov 25, 2014

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By Patricia Levi and Yael Borofsky

What does it mean for a household or business in a developing country to have electricity access? This apparently simple question has a complex and contested answer. Should a household with a solar panel that runs a light and a cell-phone charger be deemed ‘electrified’? How about a home connected to an electricity grid that is chronically unreliable and intermittent, like parts of India’s grid? How electricity access is defined has important implications for what types of interventions planners design for future electrification progress and for estimates of how universal electricity access will impact global carbon emissions.

Despite the importance of this term, expectations vary widely from institution to institution and country to country.  A household only needs 4 hours of electricity supply per day, in quantities sufficient for some lighting and a phone charger, for the World Bank to consider them to be in the first tier of access in their electricity access schema. South Africa pledged to provide a low level of electricity access – 50 kWh/month – to all poor households for free, indicating its definition of access. India defines a village as electrified if the public buildings and just 10% of the households in that village are electrified. But it’s important to note that in 2012, 74% of villages were electrified, while only 44% of households were. 

These types of definitions create a lot of confusion. Should we think of electrification on a village or a household level; in terms of kilowatts consumed or services enabled; or in terms of electrification technology? These choices are not easy. For example, defining electricity access on a village level might motivate more solutions that address this challenge at scale, but it might lead to misconceptions about how much progress is really being made. As Roger Pielke, Jr. and Morgan Bazilian point out, defining access on the household level, might cause planners to forget that household electricity is not the only factor to consider when it comes to creating economic opportunities.

Setting a technology criteria is even more muddled. A grid connection may seem like the ideal, but in reality, the grid may not provide very many hours of service per day; in the District of Bihar in India, researchers estimated that households only received 1.3 hours of service per day in bad months, and 6.3 hours in good months. More reliable off-grid systems, like solar home systems and micro-grids, can provide more predictable electricity supply, but providing a high peak capacity at low cost is challenging. In urban slums, illegal connections that siphon electricity off of the grid are common, contributing to the instability of the grid. 

In its energy access models, the International Energy Agency defines initial electricity access as 250 kWh per year for rural households and 500 kWh for urban households, projecting that this base level increases to 750 kWh per person by 2030. That’s about two orders of magnitude less than the average American consumes on a yearly basis.  

The World Bank’s Sustainable Energy for All Framework, described in the graphic below, attempts to address these concerns by defining both electricity demand and supply in five ‘tiers’ that take into account six key factors in the quality of electricity access:

  1. Peak available capacity,
  2. Duration of service per day,
  3. Duration of evening service,
  4. Affordability,
  5. Legality, and
  6. Quality of voltage regulation. 

The World Bank’s tiers range from one watt of peak capacity for four hours a day at the bottom, to over 2,000 watts of capacity for over 22 hours per day at the top-most tier. These tiers have wound up being a useful descriptive tool, but they are not prescriptive. What tier of access planners should be designing new electricity systems for is very much an open question.

 The World Bank's Sustainable Energy for All Energy Access Framework


Some argue that even though the utopian ideal may involve tier 5 electricity access for everyone, that might be entirely unaffordable for a large fraction of the un-electrified population for years, even decades, to come. Others are concerned that setting expectations any lower will create a situation in which people have access to basic lighting, but will not ever achieve the level of electricity necessary for irrigating fields, powering small manufacturing operations, and other activities that allow people to get out of poverty.

In the absence of a single definition, it is even more crucial that everyone working on universal electrification, from government officials and large multilaterals as well as researchers and NGOS clearly state their operating assumptions about what constitutes access. Without this transparency, it’s impossible to tell what electrification solutions are preferable for any one situation. 

As we cover many of the issues identified here in more depth, we hope this explainer can serve as a useful jumping off point and a reminder of the complexity of achieving universal access. 

Patricia Levi's picture
Thank Patricia for the Post!
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Dan Mantena's picture
Dan Mantena on Nov 25, 2014

When over 300 million people in India who live off less on a dollar a day it seems very odd to think electricity can solve the poverty they currently suffer.  Energy access is one solution but it should not be spoken as the main tool to get people out of poverty.

Chris Pedersen's picture
Chris Pedersen on Nov 26, 2014
I don’t think it is odd at all. If you look at the recent history of poverty alleviation, access to cheap reliable energy played a central role. 35 years ago, East Asia had the highest rate of extreme poverty, with a roughly 77% of the population living below $1.25 a day. Today, it is around 12%. Populations with access to electricity have had a much higher chance of raising their standard of living. 

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