The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently released its Energy Access Outlook 2017 report. At a high level, the point was that from 2000 to 2015, investments in national grid infrastructure made a significant dent in the global off-grid population. The chart showing their findings is presented below:
Chart 1: The global off-grid population in 2000 and 2015, from the International Energy Agency’s Energy Access Outlook 2017
This is an exciting graph. It indicates that efforts to extend grid infrastructure have been tremendously successful. However, like any good academic exercise, it is good to double check the figures. Unfortunately, not only do the numbers not add up, the conclusion is not consistent with reality either.
Let me pull out the following numbers for confirmation:
1.7 billion people, 600 million of which were in India, lacked access to electricity in 2000
Population growth in India from 2000 to 2015 was just under 200 million.
500 million people gained access to electricity in India between 2000 and 2015
1.1 billion people lacked access to electricity in 2015.
I will rely primarily on World Bank data, accessible at data.worldbank.org for this exercise. The World Bank has electrification data up until 2014, one year short of the 2015 cut off used by IEA. We can still compare the 2000 figures and have and any trend over 15 years should be able to be confirmed over 14 years as well. In addition, I will also challenge the official data from India which was not generated through field collections but through political process and will rely only on field generated data to calculate the off-grid population in India. More on that later.
First, let us look at the 600 million figure which IEA states were living off-grid in India in 2000 people. The two relevant figures are population and % of people with access to electricity. The below graph two graphs give us these numbers.
Chart 2: Global and India population, 2000 to 2014
Chart 3: Global and India % of total population with access to electricity, 2000 to 2014.
The pink line is a trend line for the official India electrification figures.
Let’s use the data from the population and electrification graphs above to figure out how many people were off-grid in India in 2000. The population was approximately 1 billion and the electrification rate was about 60% – that implies 400 million people were off-grid in India in 2000. But the IEA reported India’s off-grid population was 600 million in 2000.
In addition, the article states that India’s population growth was less than 200 million from 2000 to 2015. But according to the World Bank (graph below), it was closer to 300 million.
Finally, India’s official statistics imply very steady progress. The blue line is actual electrification rates by year and the pink line is a trend line. They are almost a perfect match! However, you will note a few things. First, there are two years which fall significantly below the pink trend line. These are 2001 and 2011. These are special years in India as they are the years the census was done. In other words, those are the only two years in the graph above where actual data was collected. The other years, the figures were constructed through a political process rather than a data gathering process. If they aligned, we could accept them. However, from 2010 to 2011, the number of people in India officially living off-grid increased by 100 million. From the invent of electrification until 2000, India was able to provide electricity to 600 million people. Then in 2012 alone it provided electricity to 130 million people (12.5% of its population). These figures are not a reasonable reflection of reality and the 2011 figures were constructed by a valid process and are thus dependable. We can estimate that the official data was off by approximately 120 million in 2012 and that this figure has increased even more so since then. Based on my analysis of these numbers and my experience in India, a better estimate of the off-grid population in India today is 400 million opposed to the official figure of 250 million.
The data from Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is similarly flawed, though not to the same degree. But even putting deviations in the SSA data, if we correct the figures based on what we know from India alone, the off-grid population in 2000 would be reduced to 1.5 billion while the off-grid population in 2015 would be increased to 1.35 billion. Adding in the deviations from SSA, the 2000 and 2015 figures are nearly identical. Instead of reducing the off-grid population by 35% in 15 years, the off-grid population appears to have reduced only slightly if at all.
However, building this analysis off of the flawed foundation provided by IEA isn’t a dependable way of analyzing the situation. Instead, we can again look at the World Bank data. Based on global population and access to electricity rates, the World Bank’s data implies that the off-grid population in 2000 was 1.37 billion. Using the same data, plus the correction for India mentioned above, the off-grid population in 2014 was 1.21 billion. That is a reduction by a bit more than 10%. Certainly that is positive progress, but it is significantly slower than what IEA implied. Further, the World Bank data shows that the off-grid population in SSA increased by 50% from 2000 to 2015 while based on our estimates above the off-grid population in India held steady. The two regions with the greatest off-grid populations have shown no progress.
This story is more sobering. Though many more people have access to electricity now than in 2000, many people who “gained” access to electricity either migrated to an urban setting or were born into an electrified house. That still translates into people having access to electricity, but it’s also a bit of cheating to claim that electrification investments are actively expanding and reaching unelectrified communities and households.
The grid continues to fail to reach off-grid communities. Grid infrastructure is too expensive. It isn’t the cost of energy production that is prohibitive, it is the cost of energy distribution. The grid is that distribution cost. Over time, the communities that will need to be reached will be further away, harder to reach, more remote, less accessible. Insufficient transmission infrastructure and limited power generation will result in greater power shortages. These will slow down electrification. At the same time, population growth is compounding, meaning the size of the challenge will be growing. A number of off-grid companies have sought to solve this problem, offering lower cost solutions which can be rapidly scaled in rural, remote, hard to reach locations. But these solutions have yet to be brought into the fold of national electrification strategies.
The world needs an electrification strategy that isn’t that old, stagnant strategy some World Bank economist wrote back in the 60s. We don’t need to dust it off and update the figures. We need to rewrite it. A previous article in Sun Connect concluded that policy makers committed to an outdated electrification paradigm are one of the three main hindrance to the further development and financing of an off-grid energy delivery sector. And based on what we have read here, that means those policy makers are also the number one hindrance to finding the solution to rural electrification that we have sought for so long.
Nikhil Jaisinghani is Co-founder, Executive Director at Mera Gao Power