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Energy Access: A Case for Reframing

March 25, 2013

Kartikeya Singh Event PhotoIn Africa, 585 million people are without electricity.  Close to 1.3 billion people are without access to electricity worldwide while 2.7 billion burn biomass for cooking energy. Startling as they are, these figures, expected to rise in the coming years, might just well be the tip of an iceberg raising suspicion that the endeavor to provide equitable energy access to disadvantaged people could take many more years than previously imagined.

Kartikeya Singh, a PhD candidate at The Fletcher School and CIERP Junior Research Fellow, believes that existing frameworks for addressing climate change may come in conflict with the commitment to providing electricity to those having to live without it. During his presentation titled Let there be Light: Addressing the Energy Access Challenge through Innovation, Singh identified innovation as the key to ensuring energy access and also shared methods and instruments to tackle this formidable challenge currently faced by global policymakers.

Singh pointed out that the goal of providing access to electricity is going to be a gigantic task given the barriers that governments have to climb through. Even though Singh acknowledged the efforts and investments made by various stakeholders to ameliorate the situation, using various estimates he demonstrated how more than one billion people may still not have access to electricity by 2030.

Despite investments and measures, policymakers are still dealing with challenges emanating from energy access demand. Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, together, account for more than 90 percent of those without energy access.  Singh said that energy poverty has a face and it’s a real issue with socio technical aspects of the challenge.

Compounding the problem is the fact that energy poverty does not exist only in rural areas and semi-urban and urban areas are affected as well. Alluding to the reasons behind inequity in energy access, Singh said, “Inefficient distribution system and ineffective policy is leading to an inequitable world in terms of energy access. The scale of investment required is huge.”

Singh talked about major trends that are going to affect energy access for years to come namely climate change and urbanization. Singh believes that urbanization is going to challenge how we have thought about energy access. “There are also going to be issues about migration because accounting might be questionable in that people might have homes in both urban and rural areas.” Furthermore, extension of grid networks may not be feasible, for instance, in India national forest areas are left out of the grid network.

While Summing up the shortcomings of the existing debate, Singh argued, “The climate debate has been locked in luxury and survival arguments with equity playing a prominent role. Treaty system penalizes you rather than creating opportunities. Much debate on climate change has been about temperature targets, time lines, and carbon budgets and it relegates energy access to basic needs. Debate on basic needs with not much thought about what beyond basic.”

Furthermore, there are disagreements on actual amount required for clean energy services. In a positive development though, in last few years, there has been a push at the policy level to provide energy access in the global south. Energy access has favored micro solutions and small scale allows experimentation, explosion of environmental activities around small scale diffusion. However, important questions remain unanswered about the adequacy of energy and the need for proper standards within the industry.

Proposing the reframing of the energy access, Singh said, “We must reframe the energy access challenge beyond basic needs to something that creates thriving communities with poor having access to improved quality and quantity of energy. We perhaps need to relook at energy access and see what we can do with energy“.  He termed this new paradigm for energy access to be on the basis of “thrival” that is “energy beyond survival”.

Singh recognizes that there are ample opportunities for innovation and will soon be travelling to India to do a sectoral analysis of clean energy market in India as data show there is a huge market for decentralized minigrids and a relatively smaller market for solar home systems and lanterns. He affirmed that the individualization of technology, decentralization and energy efficiency is going to be the key in democratization of energy but also in energy security.

Article by Sachin Gaur, MALD Candidate F13