Institute of Development Studies, IDS

Tackling energy access for sustainable development

Press Release   •   Nov 17, 2011 08:41 GMT

The challenge of providing poor people with access to energy services requires a broader and more ambitious approach, according to a new working paper from the IDS-based STEPS Centre. Access to energy is a key development priority. Yet current international arrangements to tackle energy access and climate change, based on technology transfer and finance, are failing to produce real development, according to the authors.

The paper, 'Energy pathways in low carbon development: From technology transfer to socio-technical transformation', argues that a wider view of technology is needed, one that includes knowledge, culture, skills and the way technology is used and controlled.

By 2030 the number of people without access to electricity will fall by only a fraction – from 1.4 billion to 1.2 billion, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and International Energy Agency (IEA). Those relying on traditional biomass might even increase from the current 2.7 billion to 2.8 billion. A reliance on energy from biomass is widely recognised to have negative impacts on health, education and quality of life.

Increasing access to modern energy services is therefore seen as a key international development priority. The problem of providing energy access to developing countries, while addressing climate change, has been a focus of international climate negotiations. But, the new STEPS paper argues, without attention to how technologies fit into current systems or how current systems can be developed to absorb technologies, the chances of hardware being appropriate and used effectively are limited, and opportunities for development are neglected.

Moving towards a broader view of low-carbon technologies

Global efforts to tackle this problem have included creating large international schemes to encourage the spread of low-carbon technologies through global markets. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), for example, has mobilised billions of dollars to install such technologies in developing countries. But the distribution of CDM projects is uneven. The poorest countries in the world continue to miss out, while some developing countries (e.g. China, Brazil and India) attract most of the finance and low-carbon technology. Even where the CDM has been successful in mobilising project finance, it is questionable how much 'development' has actually been achieved, either in narrow technological terms or in broader human terms.

According to the STEPS paper, this situation arises from an enduring conception of technology as consisting simply of hardware. This narrow conception leads to the view that hardware can be transferred from one place to another, where it can be put to use with only minimal training and support. From this perspective, the main problem in diffusing technologies is their cost, and the main solution is favourable finance.

The authors of the paper argue for a broader view of technology which includes 'softer' characteristics such as knowledge. Relevant knowledge, skills and capabilities are needed to adopt, adapt and develop technologies, as well as to make use of them. Technologies are embedded in people's routines, or allow new routines to emerge. And the control of technologies can lead to economic and political power, especially evident in large infrastructural technologies such as grid-based electrical services. Adopting a broader view of technology would mean that pathways of development more favourable to poor and marginalised people could be fostered in ways that are self-determined and self-directed.