Universal Energy Access Is Attainable

Photo credit: Georgina Goodwin

Photo credit: Georgina Goodwin

By: Andy Lieberman, Director of New Programs, GSBI

This week, the United Nations will ratify the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will guide international development work through 2030. Most of the 2.6 billion people lacking modern energy services energy access (including basic lighting and cooking) won’t be aware of this. Should they hear about this new global agenda from a family member in a town with electricity and a TV or through a newspaper read before the sun goes down, they should be optimistic that they will perceive some benefits. And, if we allow ourselves to learn from what has and hasn’t worked in recent years, universal energy access by 2030 is achievable.

In contrast to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were in effect from 2000 – 2015, the SDGs have included energy access as goal #7 (of 17). This is important validation of the fact that energy access is a direct enabler of many other social benefits and many of the other MDGs. For example, Goal 3 addresses improving health, in which energy access can play a role through reduced indoor air pollution from kerosene lamps and makeshift cooking fires. Goal 2 focuses on food security, and new low-cost, low-power technologies for cold storage and water pumping are critical. Goal 8 is economic growth. Solar lighting extends the productive day for people. The ability to reliably charge mobile phones and access radios enable people to integrate into the local economy.

These goals will guide the development agendas and budgets of governments, foundations, development banks, and many other organizations and individuals over the next 15 years.

From our lens of wanting to positively impact the lives of the global poor with a focus on the challenges brought by global warming, Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship sees energy access as one of the most actionable and catalytic SDGs. We are confronted with a challenging—but we think solvable problem--how do we provide energy to one third of the planet in the next 15 years?

Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship believes that solving the problem of energy access starts with reframing the problem. When the problem is reframed, it becomes possible to envision and enact more viable solutions.

Through our work with more than 60 energy access enterprises over the last decade and our study of research done by respected organizations, we have learned that

Photo credit: Photo Credit: Santa Clara University

Photo credit: Photo Credit: Santa Clara University

  • A market-based approach is the right one (even for tough places like Haiti and Sudan that are being served by Earthspark International and Potential Energy respectively).
  • The people needing energy access don’t have much money (often less than $2/day), but are already spending up to 25% of their income on bad solutions such as kerosene lamps, improvised cooking with polluting fuels like animal dung, and traveling hours to access a mobile phone charging kiosk.
  • The energy access market is not one big, homogenous demographic, but rather numerous small markets that we estimate can be served by 7,000 to 20,000 enterprises, each serving900 - 5,000 customers per year.

Our recent white paper, Universal Energy Access: An Enterprise System Approach, details how these calculations were developed and presents a strategy for speeding the creation of these enterprises.

Successful social enterprises like solar lighting company Iluméxico and organic charcoal maker Eco Fuel Africa provide models that can be adapted to other market segments.

Fostering the creation of thousands more such companies is a task that anyone can support. For example: