Energy Access or Energy for Development?

Aim Higher

By Emma Brush and Alex Trembath

Obviously, universal energy access is a worthy goal.

But the problem with “energy access” is that, as a problem definition, it elides many of the challenges communities face. About a third of those who subsist on wood and other forms of biomass do in fact have some access to electricity; the far larger problem is that they remain isolated from modern fuels, infrastructure, and economic opportunity.

Providing households and communities basic access to energy technologies—a solar panel, a cookstove, a battery—might marginally improve their quality of life without providing a ladder to further opportunity. As Roger Pielke, Jr. wrote in 2012, “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.”

Yes, with increased energy use comes rising living standards, liberalized social values, and greater opportunity—for women, especially. So a plan to achieve universal access by 2030 through the deployment of distributed renewables, such as this one from the advocacy group Power for All, sounds sensible.

But we need to think holistically. It turns out that it’s not so easy to separate energy poverty from, well, poverty. And it’s not at all clear that solving the former solves the latter.

So when we talk about energy poverty and energy access, we should talk about energy for human development. Rather than an end in itself, abundant energy serves an integral role in the movement toward higher and more equitable standards of living. Energy consumption, in this sense, is also contingent on development itself.

As a result, any proposal to do away with energy poverty simply by accelerating investment in distributed renewables should probably raise some eyebrows. Mini-grids and rooftop solar are certainly capturing an increasing share of investment and filling in gaps in access and capital. But it is not obvious that these solutions alone will provide much access beyond household illumination and a charge for a cell phone—unless they are accompanied by substantive efforts to drive economic opportunity out of the house and off the farm.

Fortunately, the energy for development framework may slowly be catching on. “An energy ladder without increasing incomes is a ladder to nowhere,” as Greg Neichin, Diane Isenberg, and Mary Roach, of impact investment firm Ceniarth, wrote in a recent piece detailing their disillusionment with the energy access sector—and with venture-funded home solar in particular—as a result of over-hype and under-impact. “This does not mean abandoning energy solutions entirely,” they conclude; “rather, it means that we will evaluate them through the lens of the long-term livelihood improvements and income-generating opportunities that the solutions may bring to a community.”

It would be nice if solving poverty in the 21st century were as “simple” as kickstarting a virtuous cycle of socioeconomic growth with a solar panel and a battery. But there remains nothing simple about poverty or growth. Investors, researchers, and practitioners should be honest about that.