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Beyond Connections: Energy Access Redefined

The concept of access to energy does not lend itself to an easy definition. In the past, access to energy usually was considered synonymous with household access to electricity. It has been defined variously as a household electricity connection, an electric pole in the village, and an electric bulb in the house. However, these definitions do not take into account the quantity and quality of electricity provided. There are many instances where connected households receive electricity at low voltage, for limited hours, during odd hours of the day (or night), and with poor reliability. Further, this approach does not address the questions of affordability of energy and legality of connection. A definition of energy access based on household electricity connection also ignores energy for cooking and heating needs, as well as for productive engagements and community facilities.

To develop a comprehensive definition and measurement approach for energy access, the key concepts underlying this phenomenon must be examined. Some of these key concepts are:


  1. Access to energy can mean many things. The distinction between access to energy supply, access to energy services, and actual use of energy must be clearly reflected in the definition of energy access. The definition should also capture the phenomenon of access achieved through stacking of multiple energy solutions.

  2. Socioeconomic development is the primary objective of expanding energy access. The services that energy provides are critical ingredients for socioeconomic development, including the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

  3. Accessed to energy is needed at multiple locales. Socioeconomic development requires increased use of energy services across households, productive engagements, and community facilities. At the household level, access to energy encompasses electricity as well as cooking and heating solutions. Access to energy for productive engagements increases income, productivity, and employment, while delivering higher quality and lower priced goods. Access to energy for community infrastructure (such as schools, health facilities, and government offices) can lead to substantial improvements in service delivery, human capital, and governance.

  4. Access pertains to usability of supply rather than actual use of energy. The usability of energy is the potential to use the available energy supply when required for the applications that a user needs or wants. The energy provided should have all the necessary attributes for use in these applications. The actual use of energy may be constrained by exogenous factors despite an adequate access to energy supplies. Further, after adequate access to an energy supply is achieved, the actual use of energy generally increases gradually over time. To get a complete picture of energy access, both usability of energy supply and actual use of energy should be measured.

  5. Attributes of the energy supply affect the usability of energy for desired services. The attributes of energy include adequacy (capacity), availability, reliability, affordability, quality, legality, health impact, safety, and convenience, among others. The definition and measurement of access to energy should focus not only on the number of users benefitting from improved energy access, but also the nature and degree of that improvement across various attributes.

  6. Improvement in energy access refers to a continuum of improvements in attributes of energy supply. Improvement in energy access is not a single-step transition from lack of access to availability of access. Instead, it is a continuum of increasing levels of energy attributes. This forms the basis of a multi-tier conceptualization of energy access to reflect the continuum versus a binary conceptualization.

  7. For standalone energy solutions, the collective attributes of the energy supply and conversion device are taken into account. Standalone devices such as solar lanterns and cookstoves deliver a complete energy service (lighting or cooking) rather than just energy supply. In such a case, the collective attributes of the energy supply and the conversion device should be taken into account when examining energy access.

  8. All interventions in the energy sector can contribute to improved access by moving users to higher levels of attributes. Such interventions not only include new household electricity connections and delivery of clean cookstoves, but other projects such as power generation, transmission, gas pipelines, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) bottling, minigrid systems, solar home systems, biogas projects, fuel-wood plantations, and briquette manufacture, among others. In addition, soft aspects such as policy formulation, credit mechanisms, market structuring, regulatory reforms, institutional capacity development, consumer services enhancement, loss-reduction measures, efficiency improvement, and other aspects may also contribute to enhanced access to energy.


Excerpt of: Beyond Connections. Energy Access Redefined (ESMAP Technical Report 008/15), copyright June 2015: The International Bank for Reconstruction And Development / The World Bank Group


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