What progress has been made in tackling energy poverty?

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Around one in seven people across the globe still live without electricity, despite some progress in expanding access, and nearly three billion cook using polluting fuels, the World Bank said on Monday.

The global electrification rate rose to 85 percent in 2012 from 83 percent in 2010, pushing the number of people without access to electric power down to 1.1 billion from 1.2 billion.

India made significant advances, but progress in sub-Saharan Africa was far too slow, said a report tracking the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative, launched by the U.N. Secretary-General in 2011.

Almost no headway was made in switching people from biomass cooking fuels such as kerosene, wood and dung, the report added.

“We are heading in the right direction to end energy poverty, but we are still far from the finish line,” said Anita Marangoly George, a senior director for energy with the World Bank.

The report warned that traditional indicators can overestimate energy access because power supplies are limited or unreliable for many communities.

For example, new evidence showed that in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital Kinshasa, 90 percent of people are judged to have access to electricity because of widespread grid connections, but the streets are dark most nights and few households can use their electrical appliances.

Ben Garside, a senior researcher with the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), said too much emphasis was placed on investing in large-scale energy projects that feed into national grids.

“The aim is to generate the maximum amount of megawatts, but that won’t address the access issue, which is in rural areas,” he said.

Investment to meet goals

The SE4ALL initiative has three goals, to be met by 2030: providing universal access to modern energy services, doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and doubling the share of renewables in the global energy mix.

The report said the share of renewable energy – including hydro, solar and wind – grew fast at 4 percent per year from 2010 to 2012. But the annual growth rate should speed up to around 7.5 percent to achieve the 2030 goal, it added.

Energy efficiency also improved, with energy intensity – global economic output divided by total energy consumption – dropping more than 1.7 percent a year, but that rate must also accelerate, the report said.

“We will need to work a lot harder especially to mobilise much larger investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency,” the World Bank’s Marangoly George said.

According to the World Bank and the International Energy Agency, which co-produced the report, annual global investments in energy would have to triple from around $400 billion now to as much as $1.2 trillion to meet the SE4ALL targets.

Of this, between $40 billion and $100 billion is needed each year to provide everyone with access to electricity. Only $4.3 billion is required for all to use modern cooking fuels. One barrier to eliminating dirty fuels is that they are often subsidised or free, unlike cleaner options, said IIED’s Garside.

Developing countries require more technology relevant to sustainable energy, the report said, adding that import taxes and other non-tariff barriers often constrain their markets for clean technologies.

Gains could also be made by better understanding of the overlaps with other areas of development. For instance, more efficient water use reduces demand and in turn the need to pump and treat water, cutting electricity consumption.

At a forum for the SE4ALL initiative in New York this week, an alliance of 26 civil society groups from around the world, including IIED, said they wanted more involvement in decision-making on energy services, so these could be better tailored to poor communities and ensure the SE4ALL targets could be met.

This article is published in collaboration with The Thomson Reuters Foundation Trust.org. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Megan covers aid and climate change issues, with a focus on social, economic and environmental justice.

Image: A tree covered in fairy lights is shown. REUTERS. 

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