Energy access: fighting poverty and expanding the use of renewables, por Larissa Basso

Poverty is not only the deprivation of income, but also the lack of access to resources and assets, social networks, voice and power (UNDP, 2010). Energy deprivation is both a cause and a symptom of extreme poverty: it reduces life expectancy, increases health issues and eliminates opportunities for education and work, creating vicious cycles for individuals, families and communities. Halfway through the second decade of the 21st Century, more than 1 billion people have no access to electricity and more than 2,5 billion have no access to modern cooking fuels. Yet, recent efforts to improve energy access around the globe have shown that it is possible to meet the challenge of fighting energy poverty and that renewable energy is at the core of the answer to the issue.

According to the World Energy Outlook 2014, produced by the International Energy Agency, estimated 1,285 billion people had no access to electricity in 2012 (IEA, 2014). Almost half of them, 621 million, were in Sub-Saharan Africa; 304 million were in India; 62 million in Bangladesh, 60 million in Indonesia, 56 million in Pakistan. In Asia, some countries have national electrification rates of less than 40% (Cambodia, Myanmar, North Korea); in Africa, national electrification rates can be less than 5% (Central African Republic, Chad, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan) (IEA, 2014). In the Middle East and Latin America, access to electricity is more widely provided, but it is still an issue in Yemen, where there are 13,8 million people without electricity and electrification rate is only 42%, and in Haiti, where numbers are, respectively, 7,3 million people and 28% (IEA, 2014).

Populations without access to electricity are deprived from basic services that can enormously improve living standards, taken for granted in other parts of the world. They have no access basic medical services, such as sterilization equipment in hospitals or vaccines that need refrigeration to be conserved; they cannot work or study at night, and their job perspective becomes very restricted; their unlighted streets are more dangerous to walk through, especially for women; in agriculture, their choices are between subsistence farming or back-breaking labor, usually with low returns; they cannot have basic house appliances such as refrigerators, ventilators or mobile phones. Access to electricity is one of the building blocks in improving welfare of the poorest; its positive impact is just compared to the impacts of agriculture research, building roads and rural education (Attigah and Mayer-Tasch, 2013).

Some barriers to electrification have been identified. Among them are: high costs to supply electricity to rural and peri-urban households and lack of appropriate incentives (small rates of electricity consumption from the newly incorporated consumers and the need that electricity price is low so they can afford to pay do not cover the investment of building or extending the grid and providing electricity to those areas), weak implementation capacity (technical and managerial skills are not often available at those areas, so extensive capacity building must be undertaken, as well as improving legislation, strengthening institutions and establishing technical standards and regulatory procedures) and fuel shortage (WORLD BANK, 2010). Important advances were achieved by implementing off-grid systems that use renewable energy to produce electricity. There are around 6 million solar home systems in operation worldwide, and 0,8 million small wind turbines; these provide electricity to households, small business, telecom towers and public lighting (IRENA, 2015). Significant expansion of off-grid electricity production has taken place in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Morocco and Mali (IRENA, 2015). Estimated 100 million people are served through off-grid electricity systems powered by renewables; renewables can be cheaper and less polluting than fossil fuels, so it is economic and environmental savvy to invest in those sources when planning off-grid systems (IRENA, 2015).

The situation regarding modern cooking fuels is bleaker: in 2012, 2,679 billion people had no access to them (IEA, 2014). From those, 1,875 billion were in Asia; largest shares were in India (815 million), China (448 million), Bangladesh (138 million), Pakistan (122 million) and Indonesia (105 million). In Sub-Saharan Africa, 727 million people were in the same situation, and it is not uncommon that almost the entire population of some countries (Burundi, Central African Republic, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Madagascar, Mali, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Uganda) is deprived of the use of modern cooking fuels. Despite presenting lower absolute numbers, the issue is relevant also in Latin America: 46% of the Paraguayans, 51% of the Hondurans, 54% of the Nicaraguans, 64% of the Guatemalans and 93% of the Haitians are in the same situation.

When no modern fuel – electricity or Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) – is available for cooking, families use what is called traditional biomass, meaning wood, agriculture waste, animal dung, charcoal and/or coal. The consequences to health, living standards and gender equality are serious. First, tradition biomass combustion is energy inefficient and produces high levels of pollutants, such as fine particles and carbon monoxide. Around 4,3 million people die annually, most from stroke (34%), ischaemic heart disease (26%), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (22%), pneumonia (12%) and lung cancer (6%); they are usually women and children, the most exposed to household air pollution – in fact, more than 50% of pneumonia deaths among children under 5 are linked to indoor air pollution (WHO, 2015). In average, only malnutrition, unprotected sex and lack of clean water and sanitation are greater health treats (IEA, 2006, 425). Second, fuel collection damages physical health; the activity is usually performed by women and children, who might be forced to walk over 10 km a day to find fuel and carry around 20 kg of it in their backs; they are also easy preys to falls, bites, assaults and rape (IEA, 2006, 428; ESMAP, 2015, 36). Fuel collection is also very time consuming: women are left with little time for more productive purposes; many children, especially girls, are withdrawn from school to attend domestic chores related to biomass collection, reducing their literacy and future economic opportunities (IEA, 2006, 428). In addition, burning biomass for cooking can lead to land degradation – the effects are small in scale, but can be important to localized communities – and local air pollution (IEA, 2006, 427).

Substituting rudimentary cooking devices, such as three-stone-stove built in the ground, with more efficient devices still fuelled by biomass is the first step toward improving the situation; several international NGOs have programs to distribute them, especially in Africa. Better devices, fuelled with LPG or biogas, are also being provided, but in this case infrastructure for producing and supplying the fuels need to be established (SCHLAG and ZUZARTE, 2008). There is still a lot to be done in this area. Governments could employ direct incentives; in conjoint action with donors and NGOs, they could also support the sustainable production of clean biomass fuels and renewable fuel alternatives, and provide public goods, particularly finance, consumer education, quality standards, policy reform and market intelligence (ESMAP, 2015, 10). The private sector could also become more involved, by helping to develop a market for cheaper but more efficient stoves, reducing prices via low-cost design, local production or assembly and innovative distribution and financing models (ESMAP, 2015, 10).

Access to energy is crucial for development, and research on the field is becoming more robust. The IEA has developed the Energy Development Index (EDI), a multi-dimensional indicator that tracks energy development country-by-country. It distinguishes between developments at the household level and at the community level (for details, check IEA, 2012a). Comparing countries performance in the Human Development Index and in the EDI proves that there is a correlation between energy access and human development (IEA, 2012b), so energy access must be a priority in national and international policy making. Fortunately, it looks like the topic is gaining precedence: it is among the drafted Sustainable Development Goals that will be proposed next September, at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit (UNDP, 2015). Hopefully, it will not be only a political statement, but become a true policy priority.


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Larissa Basso is a PhD Candidate at the Institute of International Relations of University of Brasília and member of the International System at the Anthropocene and Climate Change Research Network (

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