Universal energy access is a laudable aim, but attempts to achieve it must take on board local contexts and sensitivities
There is a consensus that modern, safe, secure and affordable services are vital to helping people out of poverty. At least 1.3 billion people still have no electricity, while 2.7 billion cook over ope n fires; 95% of these people live in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
The UN's Sustainable Energy for All (Sustainable Energy for All) initiative highlights its commitment to the goal of universal access to modern energy by 2030. Sustainable Energy for All recognises the challenge of powering the world while preventing dangerous climate change; its goals include doubling energy efficiency and renewable energy globally by 2030. More than 70 countries are now signed up.
Some have argued that, if we are to limit global warming to below two degrees, a shift to cleaner and more efficient energy cannot wait until 2030. Two decades is also a long time to wait for poor people who need to heat and light their homes, schools and clinics, and power farms and businesses. Are new approaches needed to tackle energy poverty? And if so, will donors such as the UK put up funds to back them?
The good news is that meeting the Sustainable Energy for All initiative's universal access goal could be a win-win for poor people and environmentalists alike. The International Energy Agency — not given to tree-hugging - says that, to hit the target, 55% of new electricity must come from decentralised, off-grid sources, and that 90% of this new electricity must be renewable.
So off-grid is the way to go. But for every successful project, there are numerous broken solar water pumps littering sub-Saharan Africa. In many cases, this is down to an incoherent business model — overlooking maintenance costs, for example, or failing to provide training so that projects last over time.
Getting the finance right is only part of the problem, however. Many "base of the pyramid" approaches take one product targeted at the poor and scale it up for a mass market without considering the diverse needs of poor people living in different contexts.
By developing a bottom-up strategy for energy access, the Sustainable Energy for All initiative acknowledges that a top-down, one-size-fits-all model will not help the poorest. Yet the scheme has been slow to garner ideas about potential approaches from people living in energy poverty and citizens' groups.
Research by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and other organisations shows that understanding local, socio-cultural preferences for particular products and services is crucial. People won't use a cookstove, however efficient, if the food has an unusual flavour. The same goes for different technologies: in Nigeria, people have a negative impression of solar energy due to past failures.
"Creating a new market" therefore requires more than importing useful products. Attitudes to models of ownership also count; a culture of dependency on state provision may mean private ownership models work better.
These preferences are just as important as formal factors that receive greater attention, such as the availability of affordable credit and the enforcement of contracts, and understanding them requires more than a quick survey. They suggest the overall business model must allow energy services to be tailored to different local contexts.
What types of bottom-up approaches might work? The right starting point is a holistic understanding of what people living in a particular socio-cultural context need and want energy for, in relation to their broader development needs.
Cafod and IIED have used this insight to develop an approach to designing energy service delivery for people living in energy poverty, and begun to test it out with partners and practitioners in Central America and south-east Asia.
Our approach uses multi-stakeholder participation and some innovative tools to understand potential users' needs and the local context in which a potential service will operate. Crucially, this involves a shared understanding of what value the energy service can and can't deliver. For instance, where people want evening education classes, delivering lighting to the school without providing extra teachers and books is unlikely to work.
As financial sustainability is key, maintenance costs and revenue streams are built into the design (including any tariffs, subsidies and payment schemes). Social and environmental costs and benefits are equally important if a delivery model is to be sustainable, so these are also explicitly accounted for. Allowing for these factors means the resulting energy services should bring clear development benefits, while minimising problems and costs down the line.
The bottom line is that any approach must be adaptable, responding to the needs of different people in different places. Meeting the Sustainable Energy for All goal with the limited available financial resources, and without thinking about end users' needs and preferences, is unlikely to deliver sustainable and cost-effective services. Ensuring every house has an electric light bulb or a modern cook stove will not cut it.
Sarah Wykes is lead analyst on environment and climate change for Cafod; Ben Garside is a researcher for the International Institute for Environment and Development