“Energy poverty can be described as the lack of access to clean and reliable energy to support economic and human development. This means that the energy source should be safe, environmentally friendly, of good quality and in quantities for one to use as and when required.”
By Eng. Oscar Olaro (MUIPE, R.Eng)
As at December 2019, Uganda’s Electricity Regulatory Authority stated that total electricity generated was about 1252MW with peak demand of 723.7MW, a surplus. The per capita consumption of Ugandans using electricity is 215kWh against a Sub Saharan Africa rate of 552kWh. If measured with the current the Government through the Electricity Connections Policy aims to up the proportion of Ugandans accessing electricity from 28% (March 2020) to 60% by 2027. This will be achieved by adding 300,000 new connections annually from 70,000 to the national grid under this project; the applicant will have to only have his premise wired as the key requirement. It is hoped that such an increase, on top of improving lives and spurring economic activities, will also see the unit cost of power drop. These 300,000 connections are projected to raise the consumption of power by 50MW annually while industries will take another 100MW.
Africa and Uganda’s success in attracting investment or investment in energy is exciting with hydro power, biomass, geothermal, solar and even other countries touting nuclear as alternative sources of power. This excellent trend is worth celebrating as we achieve energy security though, with the thought of energy poverty, a sombre mood hovers above policy makers.
Energy poverty can be described as the lack of access to clean and reliable energy to support economic and human development. This means that the energy source should be safe, environmentally friendly, of good quality and in quantities for one to use as and when required. In this context the energy used in this article is that which is used for cooking and lighting which is commercially paid for. The two variables are income and energy consumption.
Numerically, a household that spends 10% to 15% (African Energy Commission) of its expenditure to meet its energy (lighting and cooking) needs is considered energy poor. Energy poverty is different from the well-known poverty concept measured in terms of access to financial resources because; there are poor people who are not energy poor while there are rich people who are energy poor. Considering that almost all SDGs are hinged on energy, it is important that energy poverty is mainstreamed and tracked through household surveys.
The African Energy Commission maintains that a great indicator for energy is the rate of electrification and access to biomass for cooking. Due to the growing population, coupled with high costs of alternative fuels for cooking, biomass is termed unsustainable in Sub Saharan Africa.
With the rapid loss of forest cover coupled with low adoption of other forms of biomass such as briquettes, farm waste(maize cobs, groundnuts shells and rice husks) in households, it is almost certain that the demand for biomass fuels will outstrip supply. This is beginning to manifest with the increasing prices of biomass like charcoal and wood fuel which have gone up about 40% in the last two years.
Whereas the investment in electric power is largely driven by industrial requirements, it is important to note that several micro, small and cottage industries also use electricity. They are billed as domestic and commercial tariffs which are still relatively high. With the growing middle class there is need to have grid power cheap enough for them to use household equipment and run their small businesses. In Uganda, the demand for biomass for cooking is rising at 6% per annum while forest cover fell to 8% from 24% in the 1990s. With access to clean cooking energy now at 10% and yet the 2030 target is 99%, it leaves a huge mountain to climb, taking into account that most interventions are for the urban folk, although, 70% of our population being rural based. Despite the interventions by REA above, with a planned investment of about US$ 560 million over 10 years, the issue of cost of power remains a very sensitive even among the middle class.
The high demand for firewood and charcoal in the urban area has led to the rise in prices of this biomass and therefore an increase in deforestation to meet demand.
How do we move from energy poverty?
- Addressing it through policy: The discussions on energy mainly focus on its use for industry purposes and infrastructure. Once the discussions are also held around household use and it’s all round benefits, clear targets will be supported with plans to achieve them by all stakeholders. As government strives to increase the household incomes, it should be cognisant of the things that increase household expenditure. There are policies like the Universal Primary Education, Universal Secondary Education and scholarships for tertiary studies for education which have gone a long way in easing the financial burden in households and improving social wellbeing. A similar all inclusive policy needs to be planned for energy for low income earners. An example is that the poverty line has been revised from US$1 to US$1.95 per day which is about Sh. 7000 in current terms, with a unit of energy-kWh (Yaka) at about Sh800. It means one consumes 1 unit of Yaka a day then they are just hovering about in the energy poverty zone. And that is just for electricity, without biomass for cooking or operating any electronics like charging and computers.
- Incorporating it as a key performance indicator in the climate change discussions
Due to unsustainable exploitation of forests, increase in the use of fossil fuels and urbanisation, we are witnessing unprecedented levels of disruptions in society. One way we can mitigate climate change is to incorporate solving the issue of energy poverty. If people were given access to affordable, clean and efficient energy solutions, there would be less impact on climate change. For example the use of briquettes, use of farm waste as fuel, reduction in unit cost of electricity and solar solutions shall have quick wins for households and climate change activists. Access to clean; reliable energy should be prioritized just as much as water and health care.
- Matching investment in Energy Security with Investment in Energy Poverty Alleviation
International Energy Agency (2012) states that; a reduction in energy poverty in comparison to energy security (investing in generation capacity) represents 2.85% of the total investment on energy security by 2030. This basically means that if we spent 2.85% of what we are investing on energy security, towards reducing energy poverty we can be energy “rich” by 2030. This includes improvement in access to cheaper LPG, electricity, good quality biomass among others interventions.
- Subsidies to grid and other forms of energy
Government as stated above is already doing a lot to increase access to electricity in households through the Energy Connections Policy and promoting clean cooking systems. If subsidies on the cost of electricity and cooking gas (LPG) were added to these interventions, there would more people consuming these clean energy sources and for UEDCL/UECGL, economies of scale would fall in. This is as opposed to reducing cost of electricity for only industry and leaving the rest of the citizens in poverty. I know so many small families that would gladly choose electricity and gas for cooking if it was cheaper. The Uganda National Household Survey 2016/17 states that Kampala has the highest access to grid at 86% but most of this still uses firewood/charcoal for cooking. If we suspended duties on LPG and electricity wouldn’t it increase consumption of power? Wouldn’t it reduce pressure on forest cover, wouldn’t it allow us longer times to do other productive activities or rest? Wouldn’t our children have an extra 30 minutes of sleep, a time we spend to warm water for them and make breakfast because we must light the sigiri? What about Indoor Air Pollution from all the soot we inhale from poor energy systems and technologies? Uganda’s annual mean levels of quality of air exceeding World Health Organization’s recommendations are fivefold as at 2016 and mortality rate of 155.7 per 100,000 is bad enough but can be controlled!
It is important that the pursuit of solutions to mitigate climate change, hunger and drought should also include solutions to abate energy poverty. Whereas it may not be practical to implement these changes at once, it is very important that we agree that energy poverty is a challenge that needs concerted effort for us to register positives in standards of living.
The author Eng. Oscar Olaro (MUIPE, R.Eng) can be reached at [email protected]