One of the most overlooked development success stories right now is that the population without access to electricity has fallen below 1 billion for the first time since records began. New data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that in 2017, 120 million people gained access to electricity, meaning more people today have access to electricity than ever before. India has electrified all its villages; in Indonesia, the electrification rate is 95%, up from 50% in 2000. Kenya’s access rate has increased from 8% in 2000 to 73%, and Ethiopia has lifted access from 5% to 45% in the same time.
Modern energy access transforms lives in a myriad of ways. Energy not only powers lights that allow children to do homework and light streets to make them safer, but also the fridges that keep food hygienic and vaccines usable, the technology that brings healthcare and education into the modern age, and allows the economic development that can only be achieved through modern farming, commercial enterprise and industrialization.
By allowing the poor to stop cooking and heating with wood, cardboard and dung, modern energy also helps eliminate indoor air pollution, the world’s biggest environmental killer claiming 4.3 million lives annually.
The number of people without access to clean cooking facilities has begun to gradually decline, in part due to increased reliance on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and improved biomass cookstoves. In China, there are 15% fewer people without clean cooking access compared to 2010. In Myanmar, reliance on biomass has decreased from 94% of the population in 2009 to 76% in 2015, mainly replaced by electricity. In Ethiopia, nearly a quarter of urban households now cook with electricity, up from less than 5% in 2011. And in South Africa, electricity is now the main clean cooking fuel, used by three-quarters of households nationally.
The provision of modern energy through grid electrification and provision of LPG and cleaner cookstoves is overdue. But this progress is imperiled by a movement among rich countries that threatens to slow progress.
The well-intentioned but dangerous trend is for rich world thought leaders to declare that poor nations should ‘leapfrog’ the old technologies that industrialized the developed world.
This boils down to neglecting full grid access, which almost everywhere relies on fossil fuels, and instead peppering countries with ‘micro-grids’ like small rooftop solar panels. These can power a lightbulb and cellphone charger, but are nowhere near enough to power cooking and heating, let alone agriculture and industry.
The most prominent (and very rare) example of leapfrogging actually taking place is with cell phones. This is used to illustrate how poor countries have circumvented the rich world’s cumbersome landlines and ended up with cheaper and better communication. However, as a metaphor for how solar and wind can help, it fails miserably: Sure, you can charge your cell phone with a solar panel, but that only constitutes about 1% of the cell phone’s energy consumption. The other 99% comes from powering the cell phone tower, the production of the cell phone and servers, all of which is far too much for micro-grid access and almost everywhere requires fossil fuels.
In many international estimates, energy access is considered achieved, if each person has access to 50 kWh per year.
In other words, it is considered ‘mission accomplished’ if a poor person in sub-Saharan Africa can access to as much energy in a whole year as an average American uses in less than two days.
While 50kWh is better than nothing, it is far from adequate. The first rigorous test published on the impact of solar panels on the lives of poor people found they got a little more electricity, but otherwise there was no measurable impact on their lives: they did not increase savings or spending, did not work more or start more businesses, and their children did not study more.
In contrast, a study in Bangladesh showed that grid electrification (which mostly means fossil fuel) has significant positive impacts on household income, expenditure, and education. Electrified households experienced a 21 percent average jump in income and a 1.5 percent reduction in poverty each year.
Notice, that the rich would is not willing to live with the meager electricity provided by microgrids, nor is it generally relying on renewables.
Across the world, fossil fuels produce almost two-thirds of all electricity [64.9%], with nuclear and hydro producing another 26 percent. According to the IEA, solar, wind, wave and bio-energy produce less than 9 percent of electricity, and this is only possibly because of huge subsidies, cumulatively reaching more than $160 billion this year. Even ‘green’ Germany still produces more than half its electricity with fossil fuels.
Having powered its own development through fossil fuels, rich countries now suggest poor countries to go without more reliable energy sources in the name of the environment. That’s the wrong approach.
We need to make more breakthroughs in green energy so they can replace fossil fuels at scale.
But we also need to ensure that life-changing electrification continues. There are one billion people in the world still without electricity access. It is immoral and rank hypocrisy to leave them in the dark.