Energy “Access” Is Not Enough

Why We Need to Talk About Energy Poverty


About 1.3 billion people worldwide live without any access to electricity, and an additional 3 billion cook with wood, charcoal, tree leaves, crop residues, animal waste, and coal. Most climate change “success” scenarios leave these populations either out of the picture, or with modern “energy access” — defined as using a meager 2.2 percent of the amount of electricity consumed by the average American.

November 28, 2012 | Roger Pielke Jr

Access to energy is one of the big global issues that has hovered around the fringes of international policy discussions such as the Millennium Development Goals or climate policy, but which has been getting more attention in recent years. In my frequent lectures on climate policy I point out to people that 1.3 billion people worldwide lack any access to electricity and an 2.6 billion more cook with wood, charcoal, tree leaves, crop residues and animal waste (an additional 400 million cook with coal).

The "success" scenarios of climate advocates hoping to power the world with carbon-free energy almost always leave a billion or more people in the dark and several billion cooking with dirty fuels. Sometimes, magic is invoked to suggest that "electricity can be brought to everyone" without appreciably increasing carbon emissions. Of course, if we could bring electricity to the 1.3 billion without any access, with no effect on emissions, then we could probably do it for 6 billion others already using electricity.

There is a devil in the details, which helps us to keep the energy poor out of view while we debate issues important to rich people, like climate change. That is the very definition of “energy access.”

The International Energy Agency defines energy access as: “a household having reliable and affordable access to clean cooking facilities, a first connection to electricity and then an increasing level of electricity consumption over time to reach the regional average.”

“Access” also involves a minimum level of electricity use, assuming five people per household, at 250 kilowatt-hours (kWh) in rural areas and 500 kWh in urban areas. Note what this adds up to in real terms:

In rural areas, this level of consumption could, for example, provide for the use of a floor fan, a mobile telephone and two compact fluorescent light bulbs for about five hours per day. In urban areas, consumption might also include an efficient refrigerator, a second mobile telephone per household and another appliance, such as a small television or a computer.

I have found when you start talking in terms of "kilowatt-hours per year" people's eyes glaze over. And when I am lecturing about "energy access" students might look up from their smart phone, tablet or laptop to register a look of understanding: "Energy access -- yeah, I have that, gotcha."

Actually I want to tell them, you have wayyyyy more than that. To better explain this issue I have made up the following graph.

When "energy access" is used by organizations like the IEA, they mean something very different than what you, my students, or I might take the term to mean in common parlance. (And note, this is no critique of the IEA, they have done excellent work on energy access issues.) The graph above provides a comparison of the 500 kWh per year household threshold for "energy access" used by the IEA to a comparable number for the United States (both numbers are expressed in per capita terms, so 100 kWh per person from IEA and data on US household electricity consumption here and people per household here).

A goal to secure 1.3 billion people access to 2.2% of the electricity that the average American uses might be characterized as an initial start to more ambitious goals, but it is not a stopping point (and again, IEA recognizes that energy access is a process, but this gets lost in broader discussions).

We do not label those who live on $1 per day as having "economic access" — rather they are desperately poor, living just above the poverty line. Everyone understands that $1 a day is not much. Very few people get that 100 kWh per year is a pitifully small amount of energy. Therefore, I suggest that we start talking in terms of  "energy poverty" measured as a percentage of the average American usage (or European or Japanese or Australian or whatever energy rich context you'd prefer as a baseline, the results will be qualitatively the same). To use the IEA numbers, one would be in "energy poverty" with access to less than 2% of the energy access enjoyed by those in the rich world.

It is bad enough that the energy poor are largely ignored in our rich world debates over issues like climate change. It is perhaps even worse that our "success stories" often mean creating scenarios where the energy poor attain just 2% of the access to energy that we enjoy on a daily basis. The frustrating irony of course is that the issues that rich world environmentalists most seem to care about might be best addressed by putting energy poverty first, but that is a subject for another time.


  • I read the article with interest, but I must say I did not quite get the point that the author is trying to make. As the author points out, there are billions of folks who are “desperately poor.” Yet we do little, other than providing some aid, the impact of which is often questionable. What will change, if we start saying that there is billions living in “energy poverty.” Clearly we will not reduce our energy consumption and adversely impact our standard of living, neither will be provide massive aid to produce more electricity to alleviate the problem.  If we are to advocate a massive program to bring energy to these folks who have no energy, the least cost option is coal fired plants or diesel generators. They won’t help global warming and only increase pollution. We all know that the air in many of the cities in developing countries is almost unbreathable. I believe that it is sad, but true that it will take a very long time, if ever, for developing economies to reach the per capita energy consumption level of the developed countries and the tension between the “energy haves a have nots” will only increase with time. That is why I am pessimistic about any serious international agreements on climate change.

    By Rajat Sen on 2012 12 03

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  • Hi Rajat,

    That isn’t true - the cheapest option for powering these communities is through mini-grids and stand-alone solar home systems, as grid extension per mile averages $1220 in Africa (source Alliance for Rural Electrification) - a cost very few governments want to pay and why energy access rates are so low. There is a win-win here: cheaper renewables to power these communities through hybrid mini-grids, mini-hydro, biomass, wind, and solar and reduce the impact of 1.3 billion people inevitably achieving western energy consumption rates on climate change. Yes, we need to convince ourselves in the west to go renewable as well - but that will take political and economic will in-country, and because our infrastructure was set up nearly a century ago, renewables are not cheaper than utilities, thus its a harder argument to make. It’s always easier to gain than to give up.

    By Mary P on 2012 12 27

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