NEWS Renewables will give more people access to electricity than coal, says IEA

Around the world, more than a bil­lion peo­ple still lack access to electricity.

This num­ber is shrink­ing, down by one third since 2000, despite ris­ing pop­u­la­tion lev­els, accord­ing to an Inter­na­tional Energy Agency (IEA) spe­cial report on energy access, pub­lished today.

The report says that while coal has sup­plied nearly half of the progress from 2000 to date, its role is set to decline “dra­mat­i­cally”. This is because renew­ables are becom­ing cheaper and because the hardest-​​to-​​reach peo­ple are in remote, rural areas where off-​​grid solu­tions offer the low­est cost.

The report shows the num­ber of peo­ple with­out access to elec­tric­ity will shrink by another third by 2030, with 60% of these gains sup­plied by renew­ables. Fur­ther­more, if the world com­mits to pro­vid­ing uni­ver­sal access by 2030, then renew­ables would bridge 90% of the remain­ing gap, the IEA says.

Recent progress

There have been spec­tac­u­lar gains in pro­vid­ing access to elec­tric­ity this cen­tury, cut­ting the num­ber with­out it from 1.7 bil­lion in 2000 to 1.1 bil­lion in 2016, the IEA says. Most of this progress has been in Asia, as the charts below show (blue, yel­low and green lines and columns).

India has led the way, with 500 mil­lion gain­ing access to elec­tric­ity. Sub-​​Saharan Africa now has the major­ity of peo­ple still with­out access, at 600 mil­lion, an increase over the past 15 years due to ris­ing pop­u­la­tions. Recently, this num­ber peaked and started to fall (red line and columns).

Fuelling gains

The rate of progress has been accel­er­at­ing, the IEA says, ris­ing from 62 mil­lion peo­ple gain­ing elec­tric­ity access each year dur­ing 2000–2012 to 103 mil­lion dur­ing 2012–2015.

Coal has been the main source of this new sup­ply, gen­er­at­ing 45% of the elec­tric­ity used by peo­ple gain­ing access for the first time between 2000 and 2016 (pur­ple pic­tograms in the chart, below).

There has also been a grow­ing role for renew­able sources of elec­tric­ity, the IEA notes, with par­tic­u­larly rapid growth in decen­tralised off-​​grid access (dark green pic­tograms). From 2000–2012, renew­ables pro­vided 28% of new access to elec­tric­ity. This fig­ure rose to 34% dur­ing 2012–2016.

There are regional dif­fer­ences in the sources of new elec­tric­ity con­nec­tions. In India, for exam­ple, coal gen­er­ated 75% of new sup­plies, against 20% for renew­ables. (This pat­tern is expected to reverse, see below.)

Sub-​​Saharan Africa has had the most rapid recent improve­ment in pro­vid­ing elec­tric­ity access, ris­ing from 9m new con­nec­tions per year dur­ing 2000–2012 to 26m per year dur­ing 2012–2016. Most of this accel­er­a­tion is due to renew­ables, respon­si­ble for 70% of new access since 2012, whereas coal has not sup­plied any new con­nec­tions in this period.

Future growth

Look­ing ahead, the IEA says the num­ber of peo­ple with­out access to elec­tric­ity will fall to around 700 mil­lion by 2030, under its cen­tral scenario.

Asia will reach close to 100% access to elec­tric­ity by 2030 (lilac, yel­low and green lines and columns, below) and India will meet its aim of uni­ver­sal access in the early 2020s (blue). The vast major­ity of the 700 mil­lion still with­out elec­tric­ity in 2030 will be in sub-​​Saharan Africa.

Note that this chart reflects the IEA’s cen­tral “New Poli­cies Sce­nario”. This includes exist­ing poli­cies plus announced poli­cies and inten­tions. It also reflects assump­tions about the costs of dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies and the rates of pop­u­la­tion and elec­tric­ity demand growth.

Grow­ing grid

Around the world, the share of new elec­tric­ity access sup­plied by renew­ables will nearly dou­ble to 60%, up from 34% over the past five years (green, blue and yel­low columns, below). This pat­tern is even more extreme in India, where the share of new elec­tric­ity from renew­ables will triple to 60%

Coal’s role in pro­vid­ing elec­tric­ity access “declines dra­mat­i­cally”, the IEA says, pro­vid­ing power to 16% of those who gain access over the next 14 years. This com­pares to 45% dur­ing 2000–2016.

Note that the IEA has been crit­i­cised for repeat­edly under­es­ti­mat­ing the rate of growth of renew­ables, par­tic­u­larly solar. This makes its out­look, in which renew­ables sup­ply most new elec­tric­ity access, even more striking.

Role of renewables

If the world wants to meet the Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Goal (SDG) of pro­vid­ing uni­ver­sal energy access for all by 2030, then 90% of the addi­tional elec­tric­ity con­nec­tions over and above the IEA’s cen­tral sce­nario will come from renew­ables, its report suggests.

This reflects the fact that the hardest-​​to-​​reach pop­u­la­tions are those least likely to ben­e­fit from grid expan­sion. For these peo­ple, decen­tralised sys­tems, pre­dom­i­nantly sup­plied by solar (yel­low columns, below), offer the “low­est cost path­way” to elec­tric­ity access.

The report, for the first time, uses geospa­tial analy­sis, at a res­o­lu­tion of one square kilo­me­tre, to assess the most cost-​​effective ways to deliver elec­tric­ity access to sub-​​Saharan Africa, whether through grid or off-​​grid solu­tions. This analy­sis takes into account exist­ing and planned infra­struc­ture, tech­nol­ogy devel­op­ments, local resources, pop­u­la­tion den­sity and likely demand.

It is this new analy­sis that sug­gests decen­tralised renew­ables will be the cheap­est way to pro­vide elec­tric­ity access for sub-​​Saharan Africa’s rural poor. Note that research sug­gests Africa could more than meet its elec­tric­ity needs, with renew­able sources alone.

The IEA puts the cost of pro­vid­ing elec­tric­ity access to every­one on the planet at an addi­tional $391bn over the period to 2030. This would nearly dou­ble total spend­ing, adding to the $324bn already expected to be spent under the IEA’s cen­tral scenario.

The energy access-​​focused SDG also includes pro­vi­sion of clean cook­ing ser­vices. The IEA says this can best be met using liq­ue­fied petro­leum gas (LPG). As a result, pro­vid­ing uni­ver­sal energy access would increase CO2 emis­sions by 70m tonnes. This would be more than off­set by sav­ings of 165MtCO2 equiv­a­lent due to reduced methane and nitrous oxide from bio­mass used for cook­ing. The report says:

Achiev­ing uni­ver­sal energy access is not in con­flict with achiev­ing cli­mate objec­tives. The rel­a­tively small increase in total pri­mary energy demand and the cen­tral role of renew­ables in our Energy for All Case means that global energy-​​related car­bon diox­ide (CO2) emis­sions increase by just 70 mil­lion tonnes (Mt) rel­a­tive to the New Poli­cies Sce­nario in 2030 (0.2% of the global level).


The large num­bers of peo­ple with­out access to elec­tric­ity are a fre­quent point of con­tention in debates over how to address cli­mate change.

Some pro­po­nents cite China and India’s reliance on coal to bring elec­tric­ity to their pop­u­la­tions. They argue that coal is cheap and must be part of the solu­tion for the remain­ing 1.1 bil­lion peo­ple that still lack access to electricity.

Not every­one agrees on how best to meet the needs of these peo­ple, who are mostly in sub-​​Saharan Africa. In a Novem­ber 2016 inter­view, Dan Kam­men, pro­fes­sor of energy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley and a for­mer sci­ence envoy to the US State Depart­ment, told Car­bon Brief that coal has been given too much credit as a solu­tion to extreme poverty in Africa.

Coal doesn’t even deliver the thing for which it’s really been touted for, and that is, bring­ing peo­ple out of poverty because some­how it’s this least-​​cost fos­sil fuel source…I really cringe a bit when I see peo­ple tout­ing mega fos­sil fuel projects as the obvi­ous, first thing to look at…Distributed clean energy, time and time again today, has proven to be bet­ter, cheaper, more socially and envi­ron­men­tally positive.

As a July 2017 World Bank blog explains: “In many rural areas in Africa, impacts on eco­nomic devel­op­ment of grid exten­sion in the near term may be very mod­est, while off-​​grid tech­nolo­gies can be more cost-​​effective for meet­ing the most highly-​​valued basic house­hold needs.”

In fur­ther sup­port of the ben­e­fits of off-​​grid sys­tems, it says:

The major down­side of off-​​grid solar is that the rel­a­tively low amount of sup­plied elec­tric­ity lim­its what those sys­tems can do for the pro­duc­tive use of elec­tric­ity. How­ever, elec­tric­ity usage pat­terns in newly elec­tri­fied areas in rural Africa are often such that solar is able to meet those demands. Even in grid-​​covered rural areas, house­holds and micro-​​enterprises use elec­tric­ity mostly for light­ing, phone charg­ing, and enter­tain­ment – which can eas­ily be pro­vided by solar panels.

Regard­less of these details, today’s new IEA report shows that coal’s role in expand­ing elec­tric­ity access is set to decline dra­mat­i­cally. Renew­ables, both on and off the grid, will pro­vide most new con­nec­tions, as the pop­u­la­tion with­out access falls by another third to 700 million.

If the world hopes to meet its goal of uni­ver­sal elec­tric­ity access by 2030, then the IEA report sug­gests it is solar – not coal – that will bridge the gap.

Note on definitions

The IEA report defines elec­tric­ity access as a min­i­mum of 250 kilo­watt hours (kWh) per rural house­hold per year. This excludes the more than 23m “pico solar” units sold since 2010. The report explains:

Peo­ple rely­ing on ‘pico solar’ prod­ucts, mainly solar lanterns which may include mobile phone charg­ers, are con­sid­ered to be below the min­i­mum thresh­old to count as hav­ing [elec­tric­ity] access. Nev­er­the­less, there are sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fits for the poor asso­ci­ated with pico solar products.

You can see the range of solu­tions it con­sid­ers in its report in the graphic, below.

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