By Christine Eibs Singer
For the first time in 20 years, the IEA reports that the number of people around the world who live without electricity was set to rise by nearly 20 million in 2022, reaching nearly 775 million. The rise is mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, where the number of people without access is nearly back to its 2013 peak. This has been driven by the compounded impacts of the pandemic, inflation, and the global energy crises.
Based on current policies, investment trends and announcements, this number will not be dramatically reduced. The IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2022 projects 660 million people will be without access to electricity in 2030, only a 14% improvement in access over the remaining 8 years to 2030, an insufficient level that will produce withering consequences for the climate and economic development. Sub-Saharan Africa will host 85% of those living without access, up from 77% today.
The energy pathways and resource dependencies developed across the African continent today will have profound climate impacts in the medium and long term. The 2021 report, Unlocking Climate Finance for Energy Access, demonstrated that delivering first-time household electricity access by 2030 via a low carbon trajectory avoids approximately 268 million tonnes of CO2eq emissions, with a technology mix that is 43% off-grid solar solutions.
Deploying off-grid (or standalone) technologies to deliver power to households and enterprises will be critical in accelerating progress toward SDG7 and the significant development impacts it delivers. However, there are worrying signs that this may not materialize. Households in unconventional, hardest to reach markets, in rural and vulnerable communities, and with affordability levels of a few dollars per month are at an increasing risk of being left behind as capital flows, specifically philanthropic commitments, are moving upstream away from the off-grid solar (OGS) sector towards larger decentralized renewable systems (e.g., mini-grids), productive use appliances and sizable carbon emission reductions. Off-grid solar business models, including PAYGo have demonstrated the financial viability of delivering access through market-based approaches and the private sector. With an estimated 140 million households to be served by OGS, a recent market analysis shows this requires about 300 enterprises/distributors and USD22.3 billion of capital. Yet, the cumulative investment from 2017-2021 is only USD1.7 billion – with about 100 companies currently stranded in the valley of death with limited funding in sight. At this pace, that 43% off-grid solar target and its emissions reductions won’t be met.
There is no question electricity access that delivers higher levels of power for communities, industry, and productive use along with significant emission reductions is a laudable and critical objective. But, along with this increased focus of funding on reliable and sufficient levels of power, investment in the delivery of off-grid solar for 1st time household access to electricity limps along. Can’t the global community do both?
Without increasing investment in 1st time household energy access, millions will be left in the dark, forcing them to use expensive, climate damaging and dangerous stop-gap measures. Women will continue to bear the primary burdens that result from a lack of energy access, reinforcing gender inequities and limiting women’s empowerment. To deliver an equitable, just energy transition, electricity access for all is required. The technologies and business models exist today that will leave no one behind. Let’s not keep them waiting.