development energy poverty

The three dimensions of energy access

This week I’ve been checking in on Practical Action’s 2014 edition of the Poor People’s Energy Outlook, an important series of reports that has highlighted how and why we should extend cheap energy to everyone. They make a strong case for energy access as a key component of development, freeing people from drudgery, improving health, safety and learning opportunities.

One of the reports’ big contributions has been to elaborate the idea of ‘total energy access’. It is not quite as simple as those who have electricity and those that don’t. To make a real difference, there are three forms of energy access that need to be met:

The first is household energy, the one that probably comes to mind first. That means electric light, replacing unhealthy and hazardous kerosene lamps – and a saving on fuel too. A study by SolarAid found that switching from kerosene to electricity saved rural African households $70 a year.

At the most basic, it would include a socket for charging a phone or plugging in a radio, but it would hopefully be enough to power a fridge or to provide a heat source for cooking. Electricity for cooking reduces demand for wood and charcoal, which has environmental benefits, and there are big health advantages with the reduction in smoke.

The SeamstressThe second dimension of total energy access is energy for production, which is workplace energy. That’s the difference between an old treadle-style sewing machine or an electric one, between sawing wood manually in a workshop or being able to run a bandsaw. Mechanising simple processes such as milling or pumping water can save hours of back-breaking labour, and raise productivity and economic potential.

Again, light is an important one. That could be as simple as lights to keep a shop open, or protecting workers eyesight as they work on detailed handiwork. It’s also critical to agriculture, for processing and storing harvests and reducing food loss. And of course, a steady supply of electricity means you can run a modern office, with computers and internet connectivity.

Finally, we have community energy. This is a reliable energy supply to shared facilities, the most important of which would be healthcare. Clinics and hospitals need electricity to run lab equipment, store medicines, and to operate out of daylight hours. Electricity can be a matter of life and death, if medical staff are unable to store vaccinations or turn the lights on in an operating theatre.

Energy for education is important too, providing light, heat or cooling, and the power to run teaching technologies from overhead projectors to laptops. I’ve experienced this form of energy poverty myself. My primary school in Madagascar had no glass in the windows, so we had to close the shutters when it rained – but we had very unreliable electricity and one dim bulb per classroom if it was working. Sometimes we’d just sit in the dark while the teacher told us stories, shouting over the din of the rain on the tin roof.

Energy for community also includes energy for infrastructure such as street lighting, the water supply, or – another example from Madagascar – keeping the traffic lights working.

For the 1.3 billion people who currently don’t have access to electricity, all three of these matter. And for all of us, it matters that this vital energy is renewable. For more on how to achieve that, see Practical Action.

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