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Can We Close the Energy Access Gap?

Former U. S. President Dwight Eisenhower was particularly fond of the saying, “plans are nothing; planning is everything” to describe his desire for teams in his administration to carefully describe what they hoped to achieve, and how far and fast they were moving to actually achieve those goals. The analytic tools were useful, but what mattered was achieving results and maintaining a flexibility to deal with crises and to be honest about problems.

Eisenhower’s plea for clarity and a results-based assessment is particularly salient when applied to assessing how the world has done in bringing energy services to the poor. Based on current trends, the International Energy Agency estimates that there are 1.4 billion people lacking access to electricity today, and extrapolating from current trends, 1.2 billion people will still lack access in 2030. In Africa, the number of un-served people is expected to grow from 585 million today (465 million rural/120 million urban) to 652 million (544 million rural/108 million urban). This tragedy makes clear that current efforts are simply not working.

Reinforcing that finding, my colleagues and I released a new paper this week where we took a close look at current utility growth trends in sub-Saharan Africa and found that a threefold increase in installed generation capacity is expected to occur by 2030, but more than a tenfold increase would likely be required to provide for full access – even at relatively modest levels of electricity consumption. This equates to approximately a 13-percent average annual growth rate, compared to a historical one (in the last two decades) of only 1.7 percent.

What new approaches are available to address these unacceptable trends? One component, for sure, is an expansion of conventional grid-based electricity systems in generating capacity, transmission capacity, distribution capacity, and collection of tariffs. These are all important, of course, but have been said over and over, and yet the forecasts for 2030 surely don’t look good.

What new approaches exist?

Thankfully, the menu of options is increasing, and governments, private power providers, financiers, and families and businesses can now pursue a range of new approaches – some technological but many managerial and social as well.

First, off-grid lighting, both full solar home systems and solar lanterns, such as those available in the World Bank/IFC’s Lighting Africa (solar lantern) program have been showing considerable success. Lighting Africa’s objective is to transition the off-grid lighting market from fossil fuels to clean alternatives, such as solar LED lights. This rapidly evolving technology promises cost-effective, clean and safe lighting solutions for the base of the pyramid consumers, covering their primary electricity needs, including lighting and cell phone charging, at prices comparable or lower than their current expenses for kerosene. The Lighting Africa team estimates that in 10 to 15 years’ time, this market transformation could reach 250 million Africans (about half of the currently unelectrified population), if market acceleration interventions are in place.

Second, mini-grids have begun to take off, with communities and businesses not only generating diesel, gas, renewable energy, and hybrid combination systems but building the distribution system as well. A comprehensive review of these technologies and of community grid/mini-grid management practices was released by the World Bank in 2007, and has been used widely in community and business planning purposes.

Finally, regional integration has emerged as a way to share resources, build market opportunities, and encourage clean energy growth (e.g. through feed-in tariffs recently enacted or proposed in a number of nations). The Eastern Africa Power Pool, a consortium of utilities in 10 East African countries, has released its long-term draft electric power development master plan for the entire region. The plan, which is developed to coordinate the capacity expansion and operation of electric power systems in the region, shows a potential benefit to the systems involved through sharing reserves and replacing high investment costs and O & M costs.

The next step – to be reported on in a subsequent blog post – is to look at how these approaches can be integrated into the picture to meet energy access and service quality goals.