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Modern Electricity Services Bridge Gaps in Global Energy Demand

For the first time, the worldwide population without access to electricity fell below 1 billion in 2019. However, this has been an uneven development, both within and across different areas.

Image Credit: Chris Troch /

A recent study performed by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) demonstrated that the rate of electrification should increase by more than three-fold to ensure global access to reliable, low-cost, and modern electricity services in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030.

Most of the improvements in universal access to electricity in the period between 2014 and 2019 were witnessed in Southern and Central Asia and a few regions of Africa.

Almost two-thirds of the regions that still do not have access to electricity—approximately 570 million people—lie in sub-Saharan Africa, in which there are nearly 30 nations with less than 50% electrification levels. This renders the region, a universal hotspot of energy poverty. Even in formally electrified regions, supply reliability and power consumption are mostly insufficient.

The authors of the study, which was published in the One Earth journal, stated that if the electrification rollout in the next 10 years continues at the same pace as witnessed between the 2014 and 2019 period, and if the populations of this region increase according to the latest UN estimates, then 520 million individuals in sub-Saharan Africa will not have access to electricity even by 2030.

This would imply that to meet the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicator 7.1.1, the aim of which is to ensure global access to reliable, low-cost, and modern energy services for everyone by 2030, progress should dramatically be increased for the next 10 years.

On an average basis, this means that nearly 75 million individuals should have access to electricity per year until 2030, as opposed to the average 22 million individuals who gained access, every year, for the period of 2014 to 2019.

The scientists further emphasized that the datasets required to deal with this problem are not available constantly and readily, because large-scale and costly household surveys are required to generate such datasets, which may not be viable for all countries to execute frequently, or even impossible in a few cases.

Moreover, combined national statistics are incapable of evaluating the level of sub-national inequality that defines energy access and its quality, or the growing pressure fueled by the growth and migration of the population.

To bridge this gap, the scientists built on earlier attempts to manipulate satellite data. Satellite information can be a significant complement to other data sources, and is also an economically viable as well as quickly modernized resource to enhance the monitoring of energy poverty, and more specifically, the developments made towards the SDG7.

The satellite data applied in the past had demonstrated that the combination of human settlement and nighttime lights data can be utilized to monitor the rollout of map power transmission, electrification, and distribution infrastructure, and quantify inequality and economic development.

But one major drawback of this method is that the nighttime lights were largely earmarked to find out whether residents of a locality have access to electricity or not. Besides, this method failed to additionally examine the intensity of the identified light to derive and confirm the proxy measures of electricity access quality.

The key question we wanted to address was whether satellite data of nighttime lights have potential to support institutions tracking electricity access, by complementing and validating a variety of household derived information. In particular, we introduce a low-cost geospatial indicator that can be updated easily and in near-real-time.

Giacomo Falchetta, Study Lead Author and Researcher, Future Energy Program, Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei

Falchetta continued, “Another important objective was to form a clearer picture of the inequality in the recent progress in electricity access, both at country-level and sub-nationally. The most innovative part of our work, however, concerns the ability to link electricity use to satellite-measured luminosity to define tiers of access based on the World Bank Multi-Tier Framework and enable estimating energy poverty, even where electricity infrastructure is available.”

The fundamental trends examined in this study show that additional dynamics and dimensions, like rural and urban regions changing at variable rates, in terms of both demographics and electrification rollout, should be taken into consideration.

Although electrification has grown relatively faster in rural areas than that in the urban regions, most of the developments occurred in urban settlements. Among the individuals who have access to electricity, there is a large distribution over access quality tiers. For example, in certain nations that experienced recent and robust growth in electrification, the predicted final use continues to be extremely limited among the recently electrified households.

This data matches with the findings of earlier analyses, demonstrating extremely low consumption of electricity by the recently connected customers. This trend could be attributed to reduced uptake and use of appliances among the poor communities.

Difficulties with widening the central grid infrastructure to far-off locations have led to growing market penetration of decentralized energy solutions that are predicted to be the most economical option to bring electricity to households that presently lack access in the majority of the locations over sub-Saharan Africa.

Care should be taken to size these distributed solutions because if these are under-scaled, it may not be enough to address the rising demand from different sectors and hence aggravate inequalities. On the other hand, an over-sizing distributed solution could render the system economically unsustainable for the users as well as companies that are handling the infrastructure.

Lastly, with rapid urbanization spreading in sub-Saharan Africa, this study has concluded that the offering of safe and sustainable access even to urban centers that have comparatively high population densities may be progressively difficult. Specifically tricky is the infrastructure expansion in slums because of the geographical configuration of such localities, the potential of the poor to afford electricity, as well as regulatory, legal, and market risks for investors.

According to the study’s authors, these results, when considered together, raise some important questions regarding the effectiveness of electrification programs and plans, and recommend the need to critically assess the effectiveness of electrification programs beyond their role in increasing the national electricity access statistics.

The study also indicates that huge gaps in unmet demand may continue to remain both within and across the nations by 2030, even under a situation of universal electrification.

Policies aiming to achieve the SDG7 target of universal electricity access need to facilitate longer-term planning and provide for a decent level of electricity service to all beyond just connections. This requires planning for infrastructure expansion that is commensurate and scalable to subsequent demand growth as incomes rise. Acknowledging the significant geographical dimension to electricity access, puts remote regions at a distinct disadvantage.

Shonali Pachauri, Study Coauthor, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

Pachauri is also the Acting IIASA Transitions to New Technologies Program Director.

At the same time though, high grid-connection charges, along with other barriers, can limit the expansion of access, even for households under reach of existing national grids. Overcoming these barriers requires smart payment schemes and innovative business models,” concluded Pachauri.

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