On again, off again

Distributing modern energy remains a massive challenge around the world, with different problems arising in different stages of economic development.

Developing countries need to build energy systems, sometimes starting almost from scratch. A quick comparison puts into perspective the actual need: at present, the 48 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa (combined population 800 million) generate roughly the same amount of electricity as Spain (population 45 million). More than 600 million Africans have no access to electricity and African manufacturing companies experience, on average, power outages 56 days per year, costing the economy about 2.1% of GDP.

Emerging economies experience blackouts as rising demand overburdens insufficient or aging infrastructure, and rampant energy theft undermines the viability of utility companies. Extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Sandy, and spikes in energy demand have exposed infrastructure weak points in industrialized countries.

600 million people experience energy shortages due to infrastructure deficiencies, with negative impacts on economic and social development.

Today’s decisions have long-term impacts

Electricity plants (whether coal-fired or solar), power lines and transformers, pipelines and refineries, and other energy infrastructure have long life-spans. Anything built today will “lock in” a country’s energy choices for the next 20 to 50 years.

In all economic contexts, uncertainty over whether energy systems will remain based on fossil fuels or transformed to cleaner energy sources is stalling action and investment in what are often multi-billion dollar projects. Future energy pricing adds a second layer of uncertainty; traditional methods for calculating anticipated returns no longer apply.

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With up to 60 hours of load-shedding per week, small businesses in Kathmandu, Nepal, find it hard to survive. Photo: Marilyn Smith

Personal impacts

Inability to carry out basic tasks in an efficient manner leaves less time to pursue paid employment.

• Low access to public services that underpin economic and social development, including health, education and public transportation.

• Low productivity and efficiency in industry, which undermines national competitiveness and individual capacity to earn income.

Underlying dysfunctions

• Over-reliance on conventional energy systems that are costly and time-consuming to build and maintain.

• Underinvestment in off-grid energy solutions that can be installed quickly and at low cost, then owned and maintained by local users.

• Ineffective delivery of international aid, reflecting issues such as lack of alignment with national priorities, low capacity in governance and accounting, and corruption.

• Disregard for low-tech solutions, particularly by funding agencies and governments.

Taking action

Governments, private sector energy companies, development agencies and financial institutions, the key players in infrastructure development, have come to recognize that energy underpins all other social and economic development. Yet many have limited resources and must make difficult choices among competing priorities.

A growing body of research demonstrates that strategically improving or expanding energy systems can deliver multiple benefits – often including cost savings – across many different sectors. Some of the factors to considered in infrastructure development include:

•  Boosting energy efficiency is a powerful tool for reducing stress on energy systems and enabling delivery to a wider customer base.

• Achieving energy security – the ability to provide adequate, reliable and affordable energy to meet national demand – requires careful calculation of how to optimize available resources.

• Building smarter grids allows greater flexibility in balancing demand and supply, in part by facilitating interplay among devices that generate, store or use energy.

• Establishing new mechanisms for finance, including carbon pricing and credits that can support transfer of funds without loans. Different types of partnerships and deal-making are becoming more aligned to the strategic aims of national governments.

EnGage now

EnAct seeks additional input from individuals and organizations working in the area of unreliable energy supply. Please help us – and others – better understand the scope and scale of this particular challenge by adding statistics, examples of personal impacts or underlying dysfunctions, or information related to solutions.


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