Musili1 has lived in Kibera in Kenya’s Nairobi County for several years, where he owns a small mobile phone repair shop. While the business is connected to the grid, electricity is unreliable. Musili has been forced to close his shop many times due to power interruptions.
Experiences like Musili’s are typical in sub-Saharan Africa, where frequent power outages and voltage fluctuations harm businesses’ productivity and people’s livelihoods. Households and businesses alike often must invest in alternative electricity sources—such as expensive and polluting diesel generators—and voltage-stabilizing equipment, because grid-supplied power is so poor.
Up until recently, the Kenyan government and others would have classified Musili as having access to electricity simply because his store is physically connected to the grid. But defining energy access in these either-or terms obscures a significant challenge to sustainable development. Electricity utilities in many developing countries are struggling to keep up with demand, leaving millions to contend with frequent outages and inadequate service. Without stronger, more reliable connections, small businesses’ productivity plummets, healthcare workers cannot administer refrigerated vaccines and children must study in the dark.
Rethinking Electricity Access
Governments, energy experts and the broader sustainable development community are beginning to adopt a more nuanced, comprehensive definition of energy access. Many now rely on the World Bank’s Multitier Framework (MTF), the first global framework to look beyond straightforward connections and measure electricity access across: peak capacity, number of day and night supply hours, reliability, quality, affordability, legality and health and safety.
Yet a critical data gap limits decision-makers’ efforts to improve energy access. It’s fairly easy to identify which households and businesses are connected to the grid, but regulatory commissions, utility companies and civil society organizations don’t yet have reliable information on supply interruptions, voltage levels or blackouts. Without this information, it’s difficult to identify problems, target policies and investments, and monitor improvements.
WRI, in partnership with the Prayas Energy Group in India and EED Advisory in Nairobi, is implementing the Electricity Supply Monitoring Initiative (ESMI) in Kenya’s Nairobi County to strengthen electricity supply and data collection. We installed plug-in electricity supply monitors in a cross-section of households representing various income levels. These devices record available power supply and voltages by the minute at their location and transmit the data to a central server, where it’s analyzed and published on a website.
This data can help improve energy access for people like Musili by:
1. Validating other reliability and service quality data
Open data techniques like ESMI in Kenya open opportunities to capture accurate, specific and objective information on electricity delivery. This information can validate or improve data collected by more traditional means, such as through household surveys.
2. Providing an evidence base for action
Addressing supply issues will require both technical improvements in electricity systems as well as strong and effective systems for accountability. Dependable data can provide the evidence base needed to improve the overall quality of electricity services.
For example, utilities may justify tariff increases with promises to invest the revenue into much-needed service improvements. Frustrated with the poor reliability and quality of electricity they currently experience, consumers may question a utility’s plan. By making it possible to independently validate service quality and reliability data, ESMI can build trust between utilities and consumers and encourage dialogue between the two.
Both regulators and civil society groups can also use ESMI data to independently track utilities’ performance, make the case for better service delivery and hold electricity companies accountable. For example, ESMI in India has spurred journalists to start covering electricity quality issues. This media attention prompted some state-level energy regulatory commissions to use ESMI data to monitor the performance of utilities that fall under their jurisdictions.
3. Unveiling inequalities in electricity service delivery
Experts know that disparities exist in the quality of electricity delivered to high-, middle- and low-income areas in both urban and rural regions. However, disparities in service delivery _within _these areas are far less understood. By collecting household-level supply quality and reliability data in urban Nairobi County, ESMI makes it possible to understand the differences among households in similar areas. For instance, data collected from two low-income areas, Kibera and Kawangare, between October and November 2017 revealed vast differences in the number of supply hours and voltage fluctuations of different households in the same community. While some of these differences resulted from illegal connections and subsequent sub-optimal power, some were related to households in the same community being served by different feeder lines. Equipped with this information, regulators, utilities and governments can take steps to improve access in both communities.
Reliable Energy for All
More than a billion people globally lack access to any electricity, while millions more grapple with poor and inadequate supply. At the same time, countries around the world have committed to providing sustainable electricity for all as part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. As energy quality and reliability issues become more prominent on global agendas, the time is right to explore how innovative data projects can help.