The new research agenda for achieving universal energy access

By Okafor Akachukwu 03/01/2017


In the September 2015, the United Nations adopted a set of seventeen global development goals called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which set out the development priorities that the global community should pursue. While each of these goals has its importance, the actualization of the seventh goal – universal access to affordable and clean energy is may hold the key to the actualization of the other goals as globally adopted. According to the 2016 World Energy Outlook by the International Energy Agency (IEA), achieving universal energy access by 2030 will require a total investment of nearly $1 trillion ($979 billion), that is, an estimated average of $49 billion per year (from 2011 to 2030). In addition, $30 billion per year on average will be required to provide universal access to electricity by 2030, while another $3.8 billion per year will be required to achieve universal access to clean cooking by 2030. This is a very huge financial investment, which by no means is all that is required to achieve universal energy access. Financial mechanisms, risks instruments, market creation, development and structuring are amongst other success-determining factors. Other forecasts such as population growth by 2030 means that interventions have to be properly targeted demanding a departure from the approach of business as usual in design, development, deployment, and implementation of energy systems and/or projects.

Departure from business as usual will require focused and committed political will to address issues of energy sector governance as well as creation of enabling environments for technology development and adoption – both of which necessitate interdisciplinary approaches that cut across various technologies and distribution systems, business service delivery models, political economy issues, cultural attitudes, and social behaviour challenges. This also involves significant capacity building as well as innovative approaches to regulation, policy, and planning. According to a letter by Benjamin Sovacool, Morgan Bazilian, and Michael Toman published in Environmental Research Letters and titled “Paradigms and poverty global energy access policy: research needs for achieving universal energy access”, research, analytics, information dissemination, and knowledge sharing will be critical to successful transition and transformation to universal sustainable energy. If set these are set as the basis of a research agenda, Sovacool and his co-authors argued it will improve the potential to deliver universal sustainable energy access with economic, social and environmental benefits. They stated that new research agenda must be “cross-cutting” and organized “around problems rather than disciplines”. This points to the need for an interdisciplinary approach that is critical, integrated and holistic in solving the problems in today’s dynamic world. Long gone are the days when energy or electricity problems and design and implementation of grid infrastructure were approached from only a technical engineering perspective. Today, the delivery of successful and efficient energy system requires that a wide range of important system elements and component factors – political, legal, economic and financial, socio-cultural, environmental, demographic, business, psychological, and public health are critically, collectively and synchronously considered. Research must no longer be carried out in only disciplinary clusters but in interdisciplinary clusters. Knowledge produced from disciplinary clusters can never have complete knowledge or understanding of a system and will be skewed based on the viewing perspective of the discipline.

While Sovacool and team agreed that some research work in the energy studies and policy fields have begun to explore some of the research approaches suggested, however it argued that in current literature, one of the weaknesses of this approach is the prevalence of a “relatively narrow national or regional focus, with many studies investigating an isolated case or small sample of (national or subnational) case studies, or limiting themselves to a particular region such as Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa”. They cannot be more correct. This is a problematic and flawed approach to having a broad and deeper understanding of factors and elements of a system that constrain or enable and accelerate access to energy services especially at different levels, scales and geographies – across continents, regions, nations and states. It only tells a narrow, unbalanced and incomplete story of a system in a particular geography without providing lessons that may be useful to such a system or others. Comparative analysis and mixed method approaches are better suited to understand the system in ways that help learning outcomes to be useful to projects across different levels, scales and geographies. For instance, investigating lessons that are useful for adoption and diffusion of energy products and solutions across different geographical regions – say in Asia, Africa and Latin America can only be investigated using a comparative and mixed method approach. While carrying out a research work to understand the factors that impede the adoption of low carbon technologies (improved efficient cookstoves) in Nigeria – I designed my research to investigate cookstove projects in China, India, East Africa – Kenya, and then Nigeria. The aim was to understand the structure of the cookstove project design, administration and implementation, and also understand how closely these were centered or organized around people – local communities, users/adopters of these cookstoves as well as how access to resources and raw materials for these projects contributed to the different project outcomes. The research effort was able to draw out how projects can be more people centered and not technology centered if it will succeed. It highlighted the need for energy product design and development to be first locally driven, designed and implemented based on people’s needs and not based primarily on certain technical purposes. This was the principal reason why Chinese National Improved Stove Project (NISP) was a success with over 144 million stoves adopted by 1994 for a project that was implemented from 1982-1992. The project is still the only large scale successful improved cookstove project in history. Similar projects in India have not had such success even with enormous resources invested into them – the same applies to projects in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere.

Another challenge highlighted is the weakness of “focusing only on a particular energy technology (such as cookstoves, solar home systems, or micro grids), rather than a complete bundle of systems or, better yet, energy services rather than technologies and fuels.”  The point being made here is that to achieve sustainable universal energy access, interventions for the poor – unserved and underserved – and research have to be viewed in terms of real services that meet the different energy needs of the population rather than singular product or technologies or fuels. In a typical rural household, energy is needed for cooking, heating, lighting a bulb – where available, drying, processing farm produce. Yet the focus of most energy access projects and research has been on how these individual products, technologies and fuels meet a technological purpose rather than a focus of how one of them or a group of them are effective in meeting entire energy system service needs. Also current approaches usually do not give thought on how to link that energy service provision to the development of energy infrastructure. Another way I choose to look at this is from an energy conversion and utilization perspective. For instance, how can some of the energy produced by improved efficient cookstoves be harnessed and converted to power light bulbs, provide heating, hot dry air for drying farm produce and other household energy needs? Or how can energy supplied by solar panels or solar home systems be used for other services such as cooking, heating, drying, processing? This approach would not only prove to be cost effective in terms of reducing costs of business as usual approach to individual product technology, or fuel project implementation and research costs but also deliver more effective results on reaching more populations that need to access electricity, energy for cooking, heating, processing over a short time. It sounds easy on paper – there is no doubt that working it out will require tremendous work/changes in terms of new policy, technology and project designs across different disciplines and sectors –that is, the broad interdisciplinary perspectives of the system that understand the multidimensional, socio-cultural and technological challenges that energy systems are situated in.

Sovacool and colleagues’ letter suggests that research programs should be organized around six groups of questions. Firstly, “how do we best measure, track, and improve data and planning for sustainable energy access?” Second, “under which circumstances can particular technological configurations successfully deliver sustainable electricity access? – what scale should energy access interventions be best implemented? What types of partnerships and business models can accelerate access?” Third, “what sort of ‘tipping points’ might there be for dramatically scaling-up modern cooking, heating, and cooling, and what policies would be needed to support such transformations?” Fourth, “how do current and prospective developments in fossil fuel resources, technologies and markets affect widespread sustainable energy access?” Fifth, “how do we better address linkages with other sectors such as health, water, food, and education?” Sixth, “what are the most compelling societal co-benefits to investments in energy access?” These are broad research agenda questions that require deep understanding of the energy system and interdisciplinary collaborations across scales and geographies for useful results to be learned. The impact of research outcomes based on these questions and the proposed approaches cannot be overestimated, considering the benefits and the positive impact recorded from shifts in the approaches of energy access projects from the 1970s to date- from donor supported – homogenous, technical, individual product/fuel focused project approach in the 1970s, to market creation – heterogeneous, technical, double technology/product focused approach that started 1990s, to the current “sustainable energy” – polycentric, sustainability, multiple, integrated energy technologies/products/fuels, people needs focused approach that started in the 2000s.

For an improved and more effective sustainable energy approach that will achieve universal energy access, Sovacool and colleagues maintain that new research must focus on providing information that is relevant to developing countries, and that can foster innovative approaches to widespread sustainable energy access. Collaborations must be pursued across the international research community/institutions – universities, think tanks, development banks, United Nations organizations, and other development organizations. These require increased learning and exchange programs for key stakeholders including local communities, networks, groups and associations. Effort must be made to share, disseminate and effectively communicate research outcomes promptly and widely to every sector that it will benefit. For instance, many in the academic and development community are ignorant of Chinese NISP’s key success factors. It is not until recently that research collaborations between Chinese universities and research institutes and other universities outside Asia (Europe, America and Africa) started that Chinese methods and approaches of achieving success in projects started to be understood and appreciated. There is also a need for a shift in how energy projects and research outcomes are perceived in development circles. Projects should be viewed as a process of learning and improving process and product innovation that will benefit other projects than viewing projects just in terms of numbers – target beneficiaries reached. In essence project and research objectives need to be broadened and analyzed using a multi-criteria approach. Most importantly new project and research approaches must have to be inclusive, and open to the participation of non-experts and energy users. This is a key factor for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals objectives of reducing inequalities, and social injustice especially the poorest and marginalized groups and communities that do not have access to energy required for domestic and processing needs. New energy access projects and research efforts for poor rural and urban populations must seek to be more people/user centred, and open to the agency and participation of community groups, networks and local knowledge experts in the grassroots technologies, social behaviour, psychology, culture and traditions that are important enablers of technology adoption and diffusion. In essence, energy access projects and research efforts must be more appropriate to reflect the magnitude of needs on ground and the urgency that we have announced that is required to meet these needs.

Article is republished with permission by The Initiative for Policy Research and Analysis (InPRA) where it was first published.

Okafor Akachukwu is the Editor, Energy and Environment, The Initiative for Policy Research and Analysis (InPRA) and Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex trained Energy Policy, Innovation and Sustainability Expert. Twitter: @akachukwu Email:


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