Universal access to electricity has gained increasing prominence as a global ambition, underscored by the establishment of SDG 7 “to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”. Embedded within the logic of this goal is the anticipated impact of electrification on productivity (and thus on incomes) among households and businesses that gain access to electricity or improved reliability. Further, actors concerned with the economic viability of electrification projects have highlighted the value of productive use in increasing off-peak demand, and thereby improving the viability of business models. In this respect, productive use has been viewed as the engine in a virtuous cycle in the fight against both energy poverty specifically, and against poverty more generally.
The literature considering the impacts of electrification, however, suggests that the relationship between electrification and productive use may be complex, with impact studies characterized by highly variable results. In particular, reviews of the literature on electrification and productive use indicate that impacts are often difficult to achieve among poor, remote populations where the existing economic base is small. It is critical to understand complementary conditions; energy access in a vacuum may be a poor investment, while coupling electrification strategies with other interventions may offer a more effective route to improving long-run economic viability of the investment as well as community development. Alternatively, energy access or quality improvement interventions should perhaps be targeted to locations where other necessary conditions for economic growth exist.
The mixed findings in the literature raise questions for policy-makers, advocates and practitioners who are focused on achieving universal electrification. These include:
- Should universal electrification be a top priority for infrastructure investments in all cases?
- What conditions, assets, or concurrent interventions best enable recipients of electricity to realize productive impacts? What level of priority should these take?
- Can the provision of additional services or concurrent interventions improve the impacts of electrification, including among the poorest and most remote populations, and if not, what are the implications for prioritizing investments in universal electricity access relative to other forms of infrastructure?
In response to these questions Duke University and Oxfam America convened a session bringing together researchers, development partners, advocates, and relevant businesses and practitioners. The aims of the convening were to:
- Establish the state of knowledge regarding the impacts of electrification on productive use and local economic development.
- Foster discussion regarding what the lack of consensus on productive use impacts from electrification means for investments aimed at achieving universal electrification.
- Identify a research agenda and priorities that meet the most important and urgent needs of energy access stakeholders and affected communities.