Keeping one billion people in the dark costs poor countries dear: study

BONN, Germany (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Governments that fail to use clean, off-grid energy to help get electricity fast to the 1 billion people living without power - mainly in Africa and South Asia - are missing opportunities to improve lives and boost development, energy experts said Thursday.

The United Nations has set a target for everyone to have access to sustainable, affordable energy by 2030.

One way of doing this is to expand national power grids, a process that can take decades and often misses out rural areas, clean energy campaigners say.

Research from the London-based Overseas Development Institute, published on Thursday, showed that speeding up access to off-grid electricity, such as solar home systems and clean energy mini-grids, can bring significant benefits.

If households in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya replace kerosene lamps with solar-powered lighting they could each save about $10 a month, said report author Andrew Scott.

“Add that up for a year, and you’re getting to quite a significant freeing up of income that could be used for other purposes,” he said, adding the figure varies according to country, household consumption and fuel prices.

Switching from dirty fuel to solar can also give children at least 15 minutes of extra study time each day, he said.

And cutting kerosene use brings large reductions in black carbon emissions, equivalent to as much as 330 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year in Ethiopia, roughly the same as the emissions from 60 million passenger vehicles.

The three countries studied together account for more than 180 million people living without electricity, according to clean energy groups Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) and Power for All which backed the report.

The report is the first attempt to develop a framework that can quantify the financial, educational and environmental dividends for households that get quick access to clean, off-grid power, said the organizations.

Rachel Kyte, CEO of SEforALL, a body set up to help reach the U.N. energy goal, said data on how people are held back by staying in the dark is a powerful weapon to persuade governments to act fast.

“When you walk into that minister’s office ... you’ve got to be able to say ... this is the opportunity cost to your people of not helping them get access to affordable, reliable, clean energy now,” she said on the sidelines of U.N. climate talks in Bonn.

The research, which draws together evidence from existing studies, was unable to measure the benefits of clean energy access for small businesses or health.

Kristina Skierka, CEO of Power for All, a campaign that promotes decentralized renewables in countries including India and Nigeria, said these energy sources could be provided in weeks or months - far faster than connecting people to national grids, which often rely on fossil fuels.

Many energy-poor countries are hoping to become middle-income countries, she noted, but officials may not realize the extent to which helping citizens get clean, off-grid power can generate jobs and improve health and education.

“It’s a lack of knowledge,” she said. “These governments care about people having better lives ... We want to close the information gap.”

Kyte said countries still needed to work on expanding their national grids and shifting them to clean power, but at the same time they should ramp up deployment of small-scale solar systems, especially in rural areas.

“This is a very workable solution for isolated communities,” she said.