Report finds more info on solar, mini-grids needed to address energy gap

The United Nations’ goal of affordable energy for all is not being supported by policy, investment and debate: This is a finding of a report written by Lucy Stevens for Practical Action, published yesterday. The report finds that this environment “has not changed significantly in ways that benefit the poor.” In producing Enabling Access for the Poor, the NGO hopes to shift the debate by focusing on the evidence from a poor person’s perspective.

The report states, “The discourse remains dominated by grid-based, large-scale infrastructure investments to boost power supplies, which will primarily benefit cities and industry. ‘Business as usual’ projections suggest that, by 2030, as many people will be living in energy poverty as today. Without a step-change, the number of people with no access to electricity will remain close to 1 billion in 2030; 2.6 billion people will cook using traditional fuels; and 30 million lives will have been lost to indoor smoke-related diseases.”

By contrast, what is needed to close the energy gap, posits Practical Action, is more information on renewables such as solar, biomass/biogas, wind, and hydro. The greatest demand for information across all energy sources was for mini-grids, followed by home systems and standalone appliances. “Within this,” the report adds, “there was quite high demand for information about mini-grids in non-traditional areas such as in solar or biogas.”

The initial report looks at the evidence used to assess the overall energy situation. In collating the report, Practical Action looked at existent material, the perception of what material exists, and where practitioners and policymakers perceived to be gaps in the material available. In its survey, Practical Action claim to have reviewed literature from 234 open-source materials published since 2008, with a subset of materials from 12 publishers looked at in more detail. 51 people were also surveyed, with 21 follow-up interviews conducted.

The results illustrated a sector in which the breadth of information available does not match its depth. According to the author, “There were few areas where a high proportion of people felt ‘good evidence’ was available. However, respondents felt reasonably comfortable with the level of information about the availability of energy resources, and partially about the technical performance of different energy solutions.”

In finer detail, the report outlines, “There was strong demand (over 50 per cent of the respondents saying ‘much more evidence was needed’) in the areas of business models for energy providers, and on costs and financing. Also receiving strong support (over 40 per cent of respondents) were themes around the potential market for energy products (existing levels of access and users’ willingness to pay) and about the wider ‘enabling environment’ for energy access.”

The results, wrote the authors, reflect the sector’s understanding that energy access will be delivered through ‘market mechanisms’, albeit with some room for support from governments acting as policymakers and regulators.

The report’s author also stated that there was recognition within the sector that “[…] funding will need to come from sources other than users (whether from governments or aid).”

However, Practical Action posits that, “It is clear that practitioners and policymakers are still unsure about exactly how to structure and finance energy markets, and how to support and guide businesses to deliver energy access at scale.”

In conclusion, the authors note, “While we know there is a need for movement away from the ‘business as usual’ over-emphasis on grid-based solutions in the wider energy sector, there may be imbalances that need to be addressed in the energy access community as well. We need to ask ourselves how far the interests of the sector (in terms of the demand for, and supply of evidence) are meeting the needs of poor people. We know that some of the greatest challenges for the sector lie in finding scalable solutions, especially for mini-grids, and that poor people have a great need for energy in productive uses (including for mechanical power) and community services – both of which are under-represented so far.”

Enabling Energy Access for the Poor is the first in a series of briefings from Practical Action. The NGO was formed in 1965 with the stated aim of advancing education and relieving poverty through technical knowledge, along with economics and social science.