The relevance of electricity to a global vision of human development is so self-evident that the exclusion of energy from the UN’s Millennium Development Goals seems inexplicable. Not one of the sixty indicators chosen to monitor progress in the period 2000-2015 was concerned with energy poverty.

This unfortunate omission constrained the flow of foreign aid and other sources of development finance to energy poverty programmes. As a result, the rate of improvement in access to electricity and clean cooking has been disappointing, relative to other poverty indicators. The quality of statistical data collection, analysis and definition has also been neglected.

In 2014, the most recent year for which data can be assessed, there were 1.1 billion people without a connection to an electricity grid, a fall of only 0.1 billion since 2010. More than half of this figure (645,000) is accounted for by sub-Saharan Africa.

Not that connection to a grid in poor countries is any guarantee of household energy security. Inadequate maintenance, transmission losses and inability to pay for fuel imports have reduced the quality of many urban systems to a laughing stock. Up to a billion people experience unreliable services characterized by high charges and interminable periods of load shedding.

Bungled privatisations and governance failings have created energy divides within countries, with middle class urban elites and their business interests attracting premium services. The mushrooming population of cities around the developing world has added this urban dimension to energy poverty.

An even more disappointing picture emerges for access to modern cooking facilities, equally neglected by the international donor community until very recently. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of people relying on traditional unhealthy biomass cooking methods increased from 2.8 billion to 3.0 billion.

The disturbing lack of progress provoked a major shift in attitudes. The former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, personally led efforts to rectify the neglect of energy poverty in the international development agenda. His Sustainable Energy for All initiative (SE4ALL), established in 2011 and championed with panache by its first chief executive, Kandeh Yumkella, was successful in influencing the UN’s post-2015 development process.

One of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) approved by the UN General Assembly in 2015 is dedicated to energy. Goal 7 sets out the ambitious aim to “ensure universal access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy services (by 2030)”.

The task is formidable but concisely expressed: the two indicators for this Goal – Proportion of population with access to electricity and Proportion of population with primary reliance on clean fuels and technology – must reach 100%. In 2014 these two indicators respectively stood at 85% and 57%, having increased very modestly from 78% and 50% in 2000. In rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, energy access reached only 17% in 2014.

Much as the new Goal was welcomed, the target date for universal access falls almost 100 years after the completion of rural electrification programmes in North America and Western Europe.

Furthermore, the International Energy Agency has warned that, at the current rate of progress, there will still be 2.5 billion people without access to clean cooking facilities in 2030. In some countries with high population growth, the percentage with access to electricity is predicted to decrease. Such gloomy projections defy the evidence of countries which are actively engaged in reaching the Goal utilising the latest technologies.

Much progress has been made in overcoming weaknesses in the measurement of energy poverty. Affordability and reliability of grid supplies will be taken into account, and off grid connections included in statistics.

The World Bank has led the development of a multi-tier framework which measures energy access within a spectrum of quantitative and qualitative indicators for both electricity and cooking facilities. Future data collected for SDG7 should increasingly absorb these new parameters, although it is likely to reflect a very low level of ambition for energy provision in the world’s poorest countries. The capacity requirement for “Tier 1” of the framework is fulfilled by a basic household solar power system, perhaps as little as 250 kWh per year.

This represents little more than very basic lighting for two rooms. By comparison, the average annual household consumption in Europe is 6,500 kWh, and 13,000 kWh in the US, according to the African Development Bank. A single fridge in these countries consumes more than the Tier 1 capacity threshold.

Goal 7 supplements the vision of “energy for all” with two further aims that address sustainability concerns, through global energy efficiency and the use of renewable technologies. These engage all countries in the enterprise, rich as well as poor.

To sustain and coordinate the commitments of all parties to the new Development Goal for energy, the UN has created an independent institutional structure for SE4ALL, with its secretariat based in Vienna. The Chief Executive Officer, Rachel Kyte, concedes that: “we are not on track to meet our goal of universal access by 2030,” a view endorsed by the UN’s 2017 report on progress of the SDGs.

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more Energy For All briefings (updated March 2018)
Energy Poverty
Solutions to Energy Poverty
Finance for Energy For All
Coal and Hydro Dilemmas
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