Alleviating energy poverty

September 22, 2010

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Energy poverty and community-based energy solutions have been back in the news lately, and have been a focus of Mercy Corps’ programming for the last couple of years.

Energy poverty limits economic growth where it is needed most. It impacts crosscutting issues including ill health and environmental degradation, as well as contributing to poor education and gender inequities. Smoke from poor-quality stoves or open fires impacts half the world’s population.

For the 25 percent of humanity off the power grid — and, in addition, those hooked up to unreliable and potentially dangerous power supplies — night time hours are unavailable for activities including small business, other income generation and school homework.

In many areas, the impact of wood-fuel dependence is also causing escalating environmental problems, leading to significant decreases in forest and mangrove cover; fires increasing in frequency and severity; and degraded land being overtaken by invasive species that are unsuitable even for livestock grazing.

Despite current energy-use patterns, there is a huge potential for small-scale renewable energy solutions applied across vast geographies. To date, most projects have had limited impact because of insufficient community mobilization around broader energy-use patterns, a failure to train community members responsible for maintaining the systems, and a failure to link communities with the service providers and financial support that would make the model replicable on a meaningful scale.

Mercy Corps’ approach to alleviating energy poverty is firmly embedded in economic development and market access — opening localized, appropriate and affordable market opportunities in energy products. It applies principles of understanding market systems around energy poverty, placing the poor within the energy market, defining sustainable outcomes and facilitating change. Our approach stays out of the direct market and instead works to build functioning markets that support access to energy products.

Mercy Corps has energy poverty initiatives operating in Africa and Asia with a basis in energy poverty surveys and market analyses intended to expand access for the poor in clean cooking and lighting technologies. These are based on a pair of complementary approaches to addressing energy poverty:

  • An energy poverty assessment methodology, identifying the root causes and impacts of energy poverty within complex environments, and
  • Market access and marketing strategies, contributing best practices for accessing ‘bottom of the pyramid’ markets across a diversity of cultures and geographies

Energy poverty assessments are made relevant at local levels, using metrics that can be applied at broad scale. They investigate energy needs, opportunities and challenges in meeting them through surveys of representative communities. They cover experiences from past and present projects trying to address energy poverty, and supporting government policy.

Outcomes of the assessment process include baseline analyses and studies, identifying poverty energy gaps, appropriate energy markets and conducting a market analysis/ mapping exercise of target products and services. This forms the basis of robust program design, based on socially-acceptable models to address constraints to alleviating energy poverty.

Part of program design may incorporate identification of financing issues identifying and overcoming financial barriers to product uptake for the retailer and consumer, including accessing carbon finance. This design and approach can include: pilot program implementation; deploying national and international advisors; testing market approaches; addressing government and private sector capacity development; assessing product compatibility with cultural norms; and, finally, commencement of educational and outreach campaigns.

The final goal? Scale up and reach the maximum number of people over the largest area we can.