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In the push for electricity access in the developing world, many policymakers are trying to figure out where on-grid or off-grid solutions make the most sense. My new CGD paper with colleagues Ben Leo and Jared Kalow asks 39,000 consumers in 12 African countries about their energy use and demand. The big takeaway: African consumers don’t view grid versus off-grid as a binary question.
Off-grid (non-generator) electricity is largely inadequate. A significant proportion of respondents reported that their off-grid electricity solution did not fulfill any of their power needs, including almost two-thirds of Rwandans with off-grid systems.
Off-grid customers still exhibit strong demand for grid electricity. In most countries, off-grid respondents reported a high desirability for grid electricity. In fact, demand for a grid connection is significantly higher among off-grid households than those with no electricity at all.
On-grid customers rely heavily on generators. For example, nearly half of on-grid Nigerians also report generator reliance.
While these findings undermine a key assumption implicit in the on-grid versus off-grid question, they make sense given energy consumption patterns. Off-grid customers may appreciate the lights and basic appliances (e.g., phone charger, fan, small TV) that off-grid systems can power, but want to move up the energy ladder toward higher power appliances (refrigerator, larger TV) enabled by a grid connection. At the same time, on-grid customers face a host of reliability issues and thus see off-grid options as an important backup.
So what might this all imply for policymakers or initiatives like Power Africa?
We shouldn’t assume rural means off-grid and urban means on-grid. Better information about actual consumer behavior and demand would present a more nuanced picture and a variety of solutions.
Low-energy off-grid solutions should expect growing consumer demand for higher-energy systems over time.
Sometime around 2045, Nigeria’s population will pass the United States in size. Nigeria isalready the world’s most under-powered country in the world relative to its income—nearly 80 percent below global trends. As large as the power gap is today, what will Nigeria’s electricity generation capacity look like in 30 years?
We present results below from a survey of shop owners who are part of the Indian government’s Akshay Urja Solar Shops program. To our knowledge, the Akshay Urja program has not previously been evaluated. These results build on a case study featured in an upcoming CGD policy paper on clean energy access entitled, “Financing for Whom by Whom? Complexities of Advancing Energy Access in India.”
Are some countries too poor to consume a lot more energy? Or is income growth being held back by a lack of reliable and affordable electricity? While there is a strong relationship between energy consumption and income, the direction of causality is often far less clear. One way to estimate unmet demand may be to try to compare pairs of countries—e.g., how much additional energy does Kenya need to reach the level of Tunisia?