Briefing: The Moment of Energy Access

sec3Whether you care most about health or education, the poor climbing out of poverty or the creation of economic opportunity, the plight of women or the needs of children, climate change adaptation or natural resource preservation—whatever it is that floats your boat and represents your values—know this:  without improved energy, very few of these goals can be pursued. Examine each of the Millennium Development Goals, or the components of the Human Development Index, or any other measure of the broad measure of development and you will realize the essential nature of energy improvements to every poverty, health, education or gender-focused initiative you hold dear. Yet this necessary input – creating energy access for the un-served – is often overlooked and generally misunderstood.

2012 was declared by the UN as the Year of Energy Access.  It is hard to point to what that accomplished except to say that awareness was raised and the Decade of Energy Access was declared.  Is that a good thing?  I don’t know the answer to that because big events and large programs can be as much of a distraction as a lever for change.

I do know this, however: the number of meetings and press releases, or new organizations and programs on energy access are not a measure of progress.  Progress consists of the number of households and families freed from energy poverty and the number of people who now have access to small amounts of electricity, modern lighting, and improved cooking.  Period, full stop. Meetings, declarations, and studies can be helpful, but these are not and cannot be the measures of progress.

What needs focus is not the Year of Energy Access or Decade of Energy Access but the Moment of Energy Access. After 22 years in the energy for development arena, that’s what I care about and what I would like to see described and discussed in great detail: that marvelous transaction that lets a kid reading by kerosene on Monday read by a modern light on Tuesday.

The most important new way to expand energy access is through local energy entrepreneurs, such as businesspeople, civil society organizations, and contractors for utilities or government programs. There is an incredible diversity of options, all of which are ultimately built on the premise of a local person bringing modern energy to the doorstep of a household, business or community.  Unlike grid extensions, which have reached their limits in so many ways, this second approach of decentralized energy services is just hitting its stride and beginning to break a sweat.

If you believe the expert bean-counters, there are about 1.3 billion people without electricity, most of whom spend between $1.24 and $8.50 per month on lighting and cell-phone charging. The same folks tell us that 2.4 billion people cook with dirty, dangerous, and expensive fuel, and that the vast majority spends between $1.30 and $8.95 to do so. Here’s what these data points really mean: there are 400 to 500 million households in the world living in the nineteenth century of energy services, spending $2.50 to $17.00 a month on mostly nineteenth century fuels.

One of the biggest reasons given for the persistence of energy poverty is that we need a massive financing program. Yet I propose that there are no more than 500 million energy-poor households in the world. Further, more than 90 percent of the vast majority of these households is spending $2.50 to $17.00 a month on lousy energy.  Bringing improved lighting, healthier cooking, and small amounts of electricity can be accomplished for $125 to $750 per household

What does all of this mean?

First, the “energy access” challenge is central to just about everything well-meaning folks want to accomplish regarding health, welfare, economic opportunity, and poverty reduction.

Second, we are dealing with a challenge that has to be viewed through the lens of the individual household, community, and local micro-business.

Third, the technology and experience base exists. Most of what needs to be done can be copied and adapted. But there are unique elements, however, to be dealt with (nowhere more evident than in the field of cooking).

Fourth, the entity best available to deal with these local circumstances is a local small business connected to ever increasing channels of products.

Fifth, the financing challenge has two parts: we need to corral existing budgets and create financing programs for end-users that match up to these spending patterns.  And, we need to create and capitalize lots of small businesses to deliver these life expanding services to their neighbors.

Finally, there are some big numbers here: reaching hundreds of millions of households is not a big-push, vaccine-style program. It is a local job and business development opportunity on an enormous scale.

The status quo is hard to dislodge, and that’s why energy access is such a challenging problem. I am still optimistic, however, for three reasons. First, the growth in awareness has created a space for smaller, more cost-effective, and sustainable efforts. Second, technology is cheaper and better than ever – and getting better and cheaper. Finally, as connectivity grows, we can envision a massive buildup in capacity for local entrepreneurs. The moment of energy access is coming closer and closer for millions of people across the globe.