More than a billion people around the world still lack access to electricity; millions more receive poor and inadequate supplies. For the unserved and underserved, there can be significant implications for healthcare, food, education and business.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it this way when explaining the effects of poor electricity in Nigeria:

I cannot help but wonder how many medical catastrophes have occurred in public hospitals because of “no light,” how much agricultural produce has gone to waste, how many students forced to study in stuffy, hot air have failed exams, how many small businesses have foundered.

Too often, planners confront this electricity access gap by increasing supply without attention to how consumers actually use and pay for electricity. A lasting solution is actually far more complicated than that.

A new WRI paper, Strategies for Expanding Universal Access to Electricity Services for Development, proposes an approach to closing the access gap driven by the belief that electrification must respond to user demand and help improve lives. We propose three strategies for policymakers, planners and electricity service providers:

Woman in Bangladesh uses a kerosene lamp. Photo by Helena Wright/Flickr
Woman in Bangladesh uses a kerosene lamp. Photo by Helena Wright/Flickr

1. Understand electricity demand from the bottom up.

In most developing countries, electricity planners look to economic growth forecasts to project future demand for electricity. Planners fail to take into account the very different levels of need amongst different consumers. A rural household doesn’t need the same amount of electricity as a large agricultural processing facility.

Bottom-up demand forecasting can help service providers and planners understand and meet consumers where they’re at. Rather than implement a one-size-fits-all approach, they can offer more targeted solutions. For instance, in some rural communities where demand for electricity is low, planners might consider options such as solar home systems or small-scale mini grids coupled with energy-efficient appliances, especially when these options are cheaper than conventional grid extension.

Governments can build demand assessments into periodic national and subnational surveys such as censuses or biannual demographic surveys. Planners can work with NGOs and private service providers, who might share data they’re collecting on electricity use patterns.  Electricity planners could also explore the potential of collecting data on energy use through mobile technology.

Workers maintain a thermal power station at Takoradi, Ghana. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/World Bank
Workers maintain a thermal power station at Takoradi, Ghana. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/World Bank

2. Link electricity access with development priorities.

The relationship between electricity access and development is a two-way street. Development—such as improved healthcare, education and agriculture—cannot be accelerated without access to electricity. Likewise, financially self-sustaining electricity access initiatives cannot be supported without successful development that underpins demand for electricity services.

So it’s important to connect the two goals rather than tackle them in isolation. For example, Senegal’s Rural Electrification Impact Maximization Program worked to identify productive activities – such as agro-industry, rural irrigation and fisheries – and then built out plans for electrification that supported them.  Unfortunately, most countries don’t confront both goals simultaneously.

Governments can harmonize national policies for electricity access and other development sectors while also providing information to local enterprises, development agencies, NGOs and electricity service providers on the sector-specific benefits of electricity. If access initiatives link more closely with development projects, planners can tap into the expertise of other development actors, finance organizations and community groups, creating more synergies.

School children use solar-powered lights in Longisa, Kenya. Photo by Corrie Wingate Photography/SolarAid
School children use solar-powered lights in Longisa, Kenya. Photo by Corrie Wingate Photography/SolarAid

3. Ensure electricity services are reliable, affordable and of good quality.

It’s not enough to just have access to electricity; consumers must be able to pay for and use it to support their various needs. An initial grid connection in sub-Saharan Africa can cost up to $100 per household; this can be prohibitively expensive even if a family could later afford to make monthly payments. Even if they can connect, other households can’t afford electricity bills or appliances to make good use of the electricity connection. Some micro-grid consumers in India spend about 7-10 percent of their total monthly expenditure on basic electricity services like lighting and mobile phone charging.

Innovative consumer finance models are emerging to provide affordable electricity to consumers who want reliable, basic services to charge lights, phones and others appliances. Tapping into the widespread reach of mobile phone technology and renewable energy, Pay-as-you-go (PAYG) models in Kenya and Tanzania, for example, now allow consumers to make remote and flexible payments well-suited to their incomes.

Poor reliability of electricity services, on the other hand, impede productivity and may drive consumers to invest in expensive back-up systems like diesel generators. In Bangladesh, Nepal, Uganda and Nigeria, frequent power outages and voltage fluctuations hamper the productivity of small businesses by halting production, damaging equipment and affecting the quality of final products. To address reliability and quality of supply issues, governments and energy service providers will need to improve the technical characteristics of electricity supply systems and institute strong and effective structures for accountability in electricity service delivery. In India, Prayas Energy Group is crowdsourcing data on voltage fluctuations and supply interruptions in rural and urban areas across 17 states, using simple, plug-in devices called electricity supply monitors. The data collected is publicly available online and consumers and others can use it to demand better services from providers.

To expand electricity services to people without access, we need to look beyond the conventional technology-centric approach and adopt a more holistic perspective. When you take a broader range of issues into account, it’s possible to provide electricity to consumers in a way that makes their lives better.