Defining ‘access’ as the nexus of ‘energy access for all’ in the global South: RGS session, abstracts and speakers

RGS-IBG Annual Conference, London, 30 August – 2 September 2016

Thursday 01 September 2016, Session 2 (11:10 - 12:50)

Session Convenors:  Ankit Kumar (Eindhoven University of Technology), Britta Turner (Durham University) and Raihana Ferdous (Durham University)

Globally some 1.2 billion people are known to lack access to electricity and a further 2.7 billion people continue to rely on biomass as their sole energy source for cooking. Achieving universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services by 2030 has been a focus of the UN’s sustainable energy (SE4ALL) campaign and is now one of the agreed sustainable development goals (SDGs) yet there remains remarkably little consensus on what constitutes energy access, how best to achieve these targets or to track their progress. Often viewed as simply a technical and logistical process of boosting the number of connections and ‘plugging’ consumers into a grid infrastructure there remains a pressing need to problematise energy ‘access’ and to trace some of the local social, cultural, political and economic dynamics that are critical in defining what energy access means and how it is experienced in the global South.  

We invite submissions of both theoretical and empirically-focused papers concerned with the configuration of the energy access agenda in the global South. Areas of potential interest for contributions to this session might include but are not limited to:
  • What constitutes energy access and how much energy is enough? 
  • What forms does energy access take and who decides what counts?
  • Kinds of connections and disconnections 
  • Formal and informal routes to energy access
  • How is access endured and experienced?


Energy justice for the urban poor 

Maria Lobo (Society for the promotion of Area Resource Centres, India) 
Vincent Moller (Society for the promotion of Area Resource Centres, India) 
Monali Waghmare (Society for the promotion of Area Resource Centres, India) 

Energy poverty is often considered as a rural problem but globally 220 million people are living in cities without access to electricity in spite of grid being so close. One of the main reasons is the exclusionary practice of the city, where often formal institutions don’t provide electricity to the poor because they live in informality and lack a formal address. 433 million slum dwellers are dependent on polluting fuels like wood, dung or kerosene which constitute major health threats to them. Focusing only on the number of people without access to electricity services also misses out the fact that energy poverty goes beyond that. Increasing electricity tariffs are a growing burden for the urban poor. 

Between 2014 and 2015 SPARC conducted a household survey in order to get a clearer and fact based picture on the energy consumption patterns, issues related to access of energy, needs and demands, as well as challenges of the urban poor. The survey has covered more than 240 households in Mumbai, Bangalore and five medium sized cities in India and made use of quantitative and qualitative methods. The purpose was to understand which factors influence the levels of access to energy for the urban poor, but also examined how electricity tariffs, energy subsidies and government programs are currently designed in India and how they would have to be conceptualized in a pro-poor way if we want to achieve access to modern energy for all. 

Energy for All? Using a Climate Justice Framework to reach the poorest

Mandy Meikle (Glasgow Caledonian University, UK) 

In relation to grid connection, it is clear that grid-access will not reach the poorest and most remote communities of the world. Decentralised solutions are urgently required to deliver universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services. Our 'climate justice' desk-based literature research into ‘scaling up and out’ pico-solar lighting in Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania, has revealed that the key elements for successful access to small-scale solar devices are awareness, availability, affordability, trust in the product, and maintenance. 

Alternative forms of finance are key to enabling the poorest people to access solar lighting. Using renewable energy for income generation can break the vicious cycle of low incomes leading to poor access to modern energy services. Community ownership, including of charging stations (or energy kiosks), which could be run by a single entrepreneur or by a community group, have potential to serve remote communities. It seems that the key service that solar power can offer is the ability to charge devices. 

While much of the 'energy access' discussion relates to widening access at the household level, the productive sector of the economy (i.e. all of the manufacturing industries) is the principal lever for change and should not be omitted from support and study. Interventions to promote energy access should be grounded in a realistic view of what people want, how they can contribute, local market absorption capacity, and providers and implementers must consider how they will adapt to a maturing market. 

Extending energy access and markets in North India: the case of off-grid solar power in the state of Uttar Pradesh

Jonathan Balls (University of Oxford, UK) 

This paper looks at how energy access is being advanced in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, as an off-grid solar power market grows. Solar power has become a crucial technology for extending energy access to low-income populations around the world. The sale of standardised good quality, branded, but value conscious solar home system (SHS) packages and solar lanterns through formal ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ capitalism is being framed as the best route to securing energy access for rural and low-income populations in the Global South. The focus of international organisations, such as the World Bank, of development organisations, and of national governments has largely been on promoting the sale of such SHSs and lanterns. Products are often carefully designed to meet what is envisioned to be the needs of low-income consumers. 

Based on empirical research in Uttar Pradesh, I firstly outline how energy access is being extended by formal businesses selling good quality SHSs and lanterns. These businesses are usually being subsidised and supported by the state and international organisations. I then move on to explore how energy access is also being extended by informal shops, which have started to sell cheap, inferior quality and improvised solar products. I argue that focusing solely on standardised good quality SHSs and lanterns, being sold by formal businesses, as the route to extending energy access is misplaced. Informal shops, not supported by the state or by international organisations have, I contend, become equally important actors in extending energy access. 

What does access to sustainable energy really mean for people at the bottom of the energy pyramid: Findings from an impact evaluation

Julia Terrapon-Pfaff (Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy GmbH, Germany) 
Marie-Christine Gröne (Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy GmbH, Germany) 
Carmen Dienst (Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy GmbH, Germany) 
Willington Ortiz (Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy GmbH, Germany) 

It is widely recognized that access to sustainable and affordable energy services is a crucial factor to reduce poverty and enhance development. Ensuring sustainable energy access is therefore featured high on the international development agenda with the declaration of the decade 2014‑2024 as the “Decade of Sustainable Energy for All” by the UN General Assembly and the formal adoption of “affordable and clean energy” as one of the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) in 2015. As a result many novel large scale efforts have been initiated to increase the number of people with access to energy. 

But counting the number of people provided with new connections to energy is not sufficient, because “access to energy” alone solely translates into sustainable development. Hence, many energy development interventions fail to achieve positive livelihood impacts. The reasons for the lack of impact and sustainability are seldom exceptionally technical issues but can often be attributed to socio-cultural, institutional and/or economical aspects. In order to enhance not only the technical but also the social and economic development it is therefore necessary, to better understand what “access to sustainable energy” really means for people at the bottom of the energy pyramid in terms livelihood impacts. Addressing this question the authors conduct a systematic evaluations of the outcomes, impacts and mid-term sustainability of 30 small-scale energy projects in developing countries supported under the “WISIONS of sustainability” initiative. Thereby, providing better insights how access to sustainable energy is perceived at the local level in the global south. 

Sustainable energy access for all: towards energy justice in South Africa

Jiska de Groot (University of Cape Town, South Africa) 
Thoko Kaime (University of Essex, UK) 

Although significant advances have been made towards electrification in Post Apartheid South Africa, many people still lack access to electricity for a multitude of reasons. Although access to electricity, and modern energy services more broadly, is often linked to poverty alleviation, development and equality, the reality in South Africa is that the poor often cannot afford these services or that service delivery is unreliable. As a consequence, not all South Africans can enjoy their full human rights, with regard to health, food and the right to a decent standard of living. For various reasons, waves of policy and modernisation projects have literally passed over the heads of citizens as macro-grid focused interventions have installed power lines over the heads of rural dwellers and other un-served populations, such as those residing in informal settlements. Perhaps the greatest paradox for energy access is how the silence of exclusion of so many from access to modern energy services is made even louder by their absence from the energy policy and law-making process.  

This paper conceptualises the nexus of ‘energy access for all’ through the lenses of energy geographies, energy poverty and human rights. To do so it analyses the case of electricity in South Africa, in which we explore what energy justice could look like in the context of achieving human rights and energy access. In so doing we attempt to shed light on the pivotal, and sometimes contentious, relationship between human rights and energy.


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