A Narrative on Energy Poverty by Andrew Barnett
|Fuel Collection Bangalore, India Photo by D. Barnes|
It is probably useful to start by making the distinction between primary energy, energy conversion technology, and the idea of “useful energy” or (better) modern energy services. So the issue is how to enable poor people to gain greater use of the services made possible by modern energy. This is the crucial insight that enables “decision makers” to see the problems involved. Namely, the problems involve an increase in the supply of modern energy forms and great access to and utilization of energy conversion technology. This leads on to to issues of energy conversion efficiency, and the ability of people to pay for the services. It has been said for a long time that poor people do not lack access to energy (they are sweltering in the heat from the sun and many have biomass all around them). What they lack is the means to make it useful to them. This usually involves the expenditure of capital on equipment to turn biomass and the sun’s energy into energy that is useful for them. Energy poverty no doubt results from money poverty and is largely about the inability to pay for modern energy services. Focusing on energy use at the outset focuses attention on the demand side of the problem.
The main features of the simple narrarative are:
- Not all forms of energy provide all energy services (electricity is required for effective lighting and for telecommunication; liquid fuels are normally required for mobile shaft power).
- Utilization of modern energy services is a function not only of the availability of energy supplies, but also of the energy conversion technology (end-use technology).
- Inanimate energy for transport and mobile shaft power (for agricultural processes) appear critically important to poverty reduction as is evidenced by the role of two wheeled tractors in poverty reduction in China.
- Energy poverty is largely a function of the lack of “effective demand” (money to translate a need into a demand).
- Meeting the basic needs of poor people for modern energy services would have an almost negligible impact on greenhouse gases. The efficient use of small amounts of fossil fuels is less harmful to the environment than the use of large amounts of renewable biomass used inefficiently. On the other hand using biomass energy more efficiently would actually be climate friendly.
- The center of any strategy to reduce energy poverty must focus on productive uses of modern energy services. Lighting and telecommunications are strongly desired by poor people, but experience has shown that they are difficult to provide on a financially sustainable basis unless they result in or are supported by some cash income generating activity.
- The focus of analysis for energy poverty reduction should be the enterprise (including micro enterprises, farms etc) rather than the household. Energy poverty will be reduced if modern energy services are used to increase enterprise productivity and therefore increasing the ability to pay for energy services.
- The poverty reducing impact of the greater use of modern energy services is determined by the other “complementary inputs.” For instance, pumped irrigation has more of an impact if the irrigation ditches and developed agriculture systems are already in place.
- Who chooses the final energy end-use technology may involve gender implications because women’s choices differ from those of men.
- We now know a great deal about small energy technology systems (PV, biogas, electronics, wind, small hydro, diesel, liquid biofuels, solid biofuels, etc). The financial and technical performance of these technologies needs to be authoritatively summarized.
- Grid electricity is likely to be lowest cost option for supplying electricity to previously un-served users. However, decentralized energy supply options will be cheapest for supply electricity to remote or sparsely populated areas. So the lowest cost option depends on the location and the objective.
- New regulatory regimes and the recent development of financially viable small scale energy conversion technology make decentralized provision of modern energy services a viable option.
- Many people start by talking about ‘energy’, but end up talking only about electricity. If this distinction is made clear early on, then it is possible to avoid this confusion and biases in ways to alleviate energy poverty.
- The availability of liquid fuels is a matter of the distribution of scarce resources between rich and poor, and is therefore fundamentally a matter of political economy.
End of comment
The above narrative is quite interesting and I mostly agree with it. However, I have a "comment on the comment.” It is stated that rural electrification must be coupled with productive uses to succeed in generating income. I think this is a bit short sighted. To say that rural electrification is most successful when coupled with complimentary conditions is quite sound, but income can be generated in many different ways with electricity and in very few ways without it. Anil Cabraal, Sachin Agarwal and I have a paper published several years ago on this topic, and its main conclusion was that the value of improved lighting (from grid or offgrid electricity) for improving productivity is often underestimated. Having quality lights among other things can result in stores staying open longer and people producing handicrafts and others goods during evening hours. It also means children can study in the evening and thus perform better in school, which means they avoid dropping out of school and in the longer term might go on to have higher income jobs. But this is the subject of another blog!
Anyway, you may have other opinions. Now it is your chance to comment on the above points made by Andrew Barnett or on the original blog.