Achieving inclusive energy access at scale

Plaban Ganguly
Published : 12:13, Nov 05, 2019 | Updated : 12:29, Nov 05, 2019

Plaban GangulyEarlier this year, the official tracking report on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7 demonstrated that we are still a long way from making sufficient progress on energy access. With globally 3 billion people without access to clean cooking and 840 million people lacking electricity access, universal energy access by 2030 remains a formidable challenge.
The 2018 version of the notable reports on energy access, Poor People's Energy Outlook (PPEO), was released by global development charity Practical Action in the capital city, which stressed on the delivery at scale. The report comes at a time when the global community has pledged to achieve universal energy access, leaving no one behind. Globally, we have seen progress on electricity access, largely through grid extension programmes, but the quality of service is frequently poor and the hardest to reach are still often last in the queue. Finance for and attention to clean cooking remains pitiful and the huge potential for off-grid, market-based electricity solutions is only beginning to be achieved in a few places.
Poor people’s energy outlook (PPEO) 2018 explores delivery at scale from a bottom-up perspective, developing metrics to assess inclusion, scale, and the context for progress. Practical Action has analysed six core case studies from diverse contexts across the energy access to bring a global message to the sector.

Efforts to deliver energy access at scale have evolved from the government-led approaches of the 1970s to energy sector liberalization in the 1980s and, more recently, private-sector and market-based interventions. Today we increasingly recognize that the market alone will not reach areas and communities considered unprofitable. Some reasons for this include: 1) a focus on counting numbers of connections, rather than who is being reached or excluded; 2) a lack of attention to the quality and affordability of energy solutions; 3) significant challenges in delivering clean cooking for rural wood-burning households; and 4) subsidy programmes which fail to reach their intended beneficiaries.

In the 2018 version of Poor People’s Energy Outlook series, a three-stage methodology was developed through which to compare a set of case studies to explore how best to achieve scale while leaving no one behind. The first stage considers the context and how this has changed overtime. This ‘situation analysis’ covers a range of factors from the national level to those specific to a particular energy access sector. The second stage considers programme design, reviewing the actions planned and implemented across dimensions of supply, demand, policy, and finance. The third reviews programme results against the objectives of scale and inclusivity, focusing on aspects of gender, poverty, and the remoteness of communities reached.

Practical Action selected two case studies in each of three sectors: clean cooking fuels and technologies, decentralised household electricity, and grid extension. These cover a variety of contexts in terms of national economy and energy resources available, and a range of mechanisms and approaches.

The six case studies are: 1) Ghana clean cook stoves programme, rolling out improved charcoal stoves (2002–2007); 2) Kenya Biogas Programme under the wider Africa Biogas Partnership Programme (2009–2018); 3) Nepal Rural Energy Development Programme, implementing micro-hydro mini-grids (1996–2011); 4) South Africa solar home systems programme (1999–2018), under the wider Integrated National Electrification Programme; 5) India Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana programme (2005–2015), bringing grid electricity to rural villages and households; and 6) Peru Rural Grid Electrification Project (2006–2013).

Every case study had at least some inclusivity objectives, with varying outcomes. In addition to these six, this report highlighted recent programmes with innovative approaches to particular challenges. Comparing these case studies provided new insights into different routes to inclusivity and scale, and how to combine the two.

Overall, the public sector-led grid extension programmes performed less well on inclusivity and needed greater focus on remote areas, improved action to address gender issues, and carefully designed mechanisms to target lower income groups.

Four of the six case studies struggled to reach remote areas. Although programmes were designed for areas with low energy access, they tended to focus on places with a sufficient number and density of households. The programmes in India and Peru both planned off-grid components, but these were poorly designed and unsuccessful. Only the Nepal programme, using micro-hydro mini-grids and decentralised decision-making to select target communities, was able to successfully reach remote areas.

The two grid extension programmes and the solar home systems programme in South Africa had no or limited attention to gender issues. These programmes failed to recognize that women might face particular barriers in accessing or benefiting from the schemes. Two programmes did not collect gender-disaggregated data or consider gender in evaluations. By contrast, in Nepal community mobilizers sought to ensure women played an active role in the programme: the Ghana programme empowered retailers (mostly women) and recognized that the majority of customers were likely to be women; and in Kenya the programme developed specific gender action plans, making progress despite a challenging starting point.

The case studies used a range of approaches for targeting poor households including the use of citizen registers (in India and South Africa), and varying tariffs and connection fees, or not charging a connection fee at all. In our clean cooking and fuels examples, carbon finance was part of a package of measures to reduce the stoves’ costs, and in Kenya households were enabled to access credit and spread payments over time.

Practical Action reviewed the actions the programmes took to achieve scale as they addressed various market dimensions of supply, demand, the policy environment, and access to finance. However, these actions were affected by contextual differences in the energy access environment, which also changed over time in each country. The two programmes that achieved the greatest scale were very different: India, with a public sector-led programme, and Ghana, with a market-based approach.

Supply low at the outset, and increasing supply capacity was a major programme focus everywhere. This probably diverts attention from other dimensions. Besides, there is a growing recognition of the importance of boosting demand. In the South Africa case, negative perceptions of off-grid products suppressed demand. The case studies in Peru, Nepal, and Kenya offer examples of how links with productive uses can help boost demand.

A supportive policy environment can be essential to programme success, for example policies around tariffs and connection charges in Peru. At other times, administrative and bureaucratic hurdle scan stifle scale. In Nepal, the programme’s experience helped shape future policies for further roll-out. Clear, stable policy and regulatory environments are important for all energy access sectors.

Finance remains a key barrier to both scale and inclusion. As it was highlighted in PPEO 2017, the right types of finance, equally accessible to men and women as suppliers and end-users, are critical. All six case studies involved some form of subsidy, at least in the initial stages.

To achieve scale and reach the last mile, we must hasten the transition from grid-centric approaches towards integrated plans combining grid, mini-grid, off-grid, and clean cooking solutions. By redirecting resources from grid extension towards other solutions, governments can accelerate energy access progress, attract higher levels of private investment, and reach more people at lower cost. However, simply promoting off-grid solutions does not guarantee we reach the ‘last mile’. Inclusivity should be actively pursued and supported in the off-grid and clean cooking sectors, just as for on-grid. A number of businesses are also leading the way in showing how women’s empowerment can be a key part of the route to scale.

Debate continues on how best to use public funding to grow markets sustainably and reach the ‘last mile’, and how tariffs should be set to be equitable, affordable, and ensure more remote, poor communities can be viably served.

There is no blueprint for success in terms of the best use of finite resources to serve large numbers of people and those living in poor, remote communities. However, PPEO 2018 illustrates the importance of thoughtful decision-making processes in achieving inclusive outcomes on a budget. Planning should address questions of inclusivity from the outset, with the right stake holders around the table.

Early signs of progress are apparent in terms of electricity access for all. However, the pace is not currently sufficient, the hardest to reach are still left behind, and there are serious challenges in terms of affordability and quality of supplies. Without tackling these head-on, people will continue to live in energy poverty, unable to benefit from the transformational potential of energy access.

We need to deliver a mix of programmes integrating grid, off-grid, and clean cooking. Given finite resources, governments can face a trade-off between reaching greater numbers with large-scale programmes, and delivering for those who are harder and more expensive to reach. A mix of approaches is required to achieve both these outcomes simultaneously, based on holistic, integrated planning. Off-grid components, either as part of grid extension work or as separate programmes, require dedicated, skilled staffing and resourcing. Clean cooking fuels and technologies require as much, if not more, high-profile commitment in order to be seen as central to our pursuit of Sustainable Development Goal 7.

If we are to truly ensure that no one is left behind, we must plan and deliver for those currently least able to afford energy solutions, and those living in remote areas. All the programmes would benefit from mainstreaming gender across every energy access sub-sector including grid extension where this aspect is often overlooked. Achieving inclusivity requires proactive and deliberate consideration from the beginning, with indicators for and outcomes of inclusivity included in the metrics of success.

Importantly, we have to aim for scale, while recognizing who is left behind. Achieving scale requires a balanced approach that works holistically, not only on the volume and quality of supply, but on blockages in finance, weak demand, and policy shortcomings. This should be based on a clear understanding of the context, and the needs and priorities of rural communities. It will require a flexible approach ready to take advantage of new opportunities and adapt to changing environments. By bringing relevant stakeholders together, market activation can be key to addressing barriers to scale; along with the smart use of public finance for well-designed subsidies and regulations.

We need to focus on striking a balance between the race for scale and the need to reach ‘last mile’ communities. To achieve this balance, we must integrate planning and action for grid and off-grid electricity, giving as much attention to clean cooking as electricity. We have to tackle key aspects of inclusivity head-on with sufficient, targeted finance, dedicated staff, and tailored processes along with addressing gender inequality to empower women and meet their energy access needs, which will also help to boost businesses. And, we must address barriers to scale holistically, focusing more attention on aspects beyond supply, and committing public funds to achieve inclusive energy access at scale. That scale is sorely needed if we are to come even close to our 2030 SDG7 goal of energy access for all. But we are acutely aware that scale must not come at the expense of those who are always left behind, when their need is the greatest.

The author is an anthropologist and development communication expert and currently coordinating the marketing and communications unit in an international charity. He can be connected via

***The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions and views of Bangla Tribune.