Since the proclamation of International Year of Sustainable Energy for “ALL” in 2012 up to current, there is still need for progress in terms of reducing the energy gap in developing countries. The role of renewable energy systems remains uncertain in countries like Liberia, even though their development or change is generally supposed to provide universal access to energy. However, there exists low-carbon solutions that ensure access to energy for poor populations and offer them the opportunity to make the most of their privileged access to biomass in the form of energy vectors. Based on a precise assessment of resources and needs of the target populations, certain innovative projects enable real progress to be made in addressing the link between sustainable energy and the fight against poverty in developing countries. Energy poverty is, however, a more specific concept, which refers to the relationship between limited household budget and the cost of adequate energy services. Energy poverty is also highly correlated with general poverty (John Hills, 2001 – Fuel Poverty). Yet, households face widely varying costs to achieve the same level of warmth for reasons other than income, such as energy efficiency of the dwelling or household’s ability to interact with the market. In addition, an adequate level of energy is essential for citizens to function in society.
THE FIGHT AGAINST ENERGY POVERTY VS ENERGY FUTURE FOR THE POOR
Energy poverty is mostly referred to as the lack of access or lack of affordability to modern energy services (International Energy Agency (IEA) website) while the lack of access is more prevalent in Liberia and other developing countries, some households also in developed countries may lack access to modern energy services such as electricity and clean cooking facilities. Access to energy is once again a current item on national and international agendas. Even though 2012 was being proclaimed the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, however, the links between poverty and sustainable energy are still poorly understood and there are still only rare real investments in the fight against energy poverty.
Energy future for the poor, a striking feature of developing countries is the persistent energy gap; there is a marked dichotomy between households using modern energy vectors, hydrocarbon-based for the most part, and those that consume little or no fossil fuels. The former emits just as much CO2 as the populations of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, that Liberia is a part of, accrued; and the latter group includes the majority of poor households that mostly consume biomass, which if it is not overexploited, has a neutral impact on climate. In most cases, poor households are isolated from formal energy supply chains. Lacking an organized system of electricity distribution, they use dry-cell batteries, paraffin or automotive batteries, which are costly. The traditional biomass they consume is poorly integrated in the formal economic system, although it accounts for up to 80 percent to 90 percent of final energy in Liberia and certain developing countries (http://www.worldenergy.org). According to the International Energy Agency, in 2009, 1.3 billion people in the world lacked access to electricity and 2.6 billion depended on traditional biomass for their energy supply. Dr. Charlotte Duke, from London Economics, Ipsos and VVA Consulting, in an article titled: Study on consumer vulnerability across key markets in the European Union, argued that there is an overlap between consumer vulnerability and energy poverty. As such, it is important to recognize energy poverty as a distinct issue as income is one of the drivers of vulnerability – there is a correlation between consumer vulnerability and energy poverty.
The Case of Guinea Energy Sector
With regards to rural access to energy, the government has conducted several surveys; results of which show: Rural consumers and institutions only use small quantities of electricity for lighting, communication, water pumping, and refrigeration. Individual systems or collective systems could provide an intermediate solution that would be affordable for many rural (and the peri-urban) households. As the source of 12 major rivers, Guinea is endowed with significant hydropower potential. Since the commissioning of the 240 megawatt (MW) Kaleta hydropower plant in May 2015, total power production has roughly doubled and can now finally meet demand. The national grid, managed by Electricité de Guinée (EDG), serves greater Conakry, with several isolated grid networks providing service elsewhere. Based on 2013 Energy data, Guinea’s national electrification rate is approximately 26 percent (11 percent in rural areas, 53 percent in urban areas).
The Case of Sierra Leone’s Energy Sector
Electricity tariffs in Sierra Leone are among the highest in Africa. Yet, the public utility company cannot recover its operating costs and remains strongly dependent on government subsidies. This is because of its reliance on expensive thermal generation, the inefficiency of its transmission and distribution networks, and very high technical, commercial and collection losses. The average electricity tariff was at US 28 cents/kWh. With high tariffs and low connection rates, electricity consumption is relatively low, and the large majority of the population is forced to rely on inefficient and polluting traditional fuels to meet their basic needs, such as kerosene for lighting and fuel-wood and charcoal for cooking, resulting in adverse impact on personal health and safety as well as on the environment. Sierra Leone’s power sector is relatively small, with less than 100 MW of operational capacity and roughly 130,000 connected customers. Significant progress has been made despite the impact of the Ebola crisis. Sierra Leone’s national electrification rate of 5 percent (estimated at 11 percent in urban areas and less than 1 percent in rural areas) reflects factors including the country’s limited transmission and distribution network and the high upfront cost of household connection and wiring.
Liberia’s Energy Policy and Strategy
Over 14 years of civil crisis and 25 plus years of economic breakdown have led Liberia to numerous challenges with regards to energy access to the population, particularly to the previously neglected rural poor, a cornerstone of its recovery policy. In 2007, the government of Liberia published a Renewable Reform Energy Efficiency Policy and Action Plan, the document displayed government’s outline to build and increase the application of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies in promoting investment, technology transfer, market development and local capacity building. In 2009 a National Energy Policy (NEP) was also formulated, which further developed the ideas of the Policy and Action Plan. Today, it is generally understood that government’s expectation to achieve its energy access goals for 2015 while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent, improving energy efficiency by 20 percent, raising the share of renewable energy to 30 percent of electricity production and 10 percent of overall energy consumption, and increasing the level of biofuels in transport fuel to 5 percent, is a show.
Political actors, economics analysts, energy predictors as well as the public predated that the government would not have achieved their 2015 goals till 2020. Government redefined its goals as new goals, this time for 2030, to reach electricity coverage of 70 percent of the population in Monrovia, and 35 percent nationwide, which includes energy access to 40 percent of Liberian citizens living in rural and peri-urban areas and using traditional biomass for cooking shall have access to improved stoves and kerosene or efficient-gas cookers in order to reduce indoor pollution; 30 percent of the urban and peri-urban population shall have access to reliable modern energy services enabling them to meet their basic needs (lighting, cooking, communication, and small production-related activities); and 15 percent of the rural population and 25 percent of the schools, clinics, and community centers in rural areas shall have access to modern energy services to meet the same basic needs, something government considered as short term objectives.
Power Africa Support – Power Africa’s engagement in Liberia is rooted in an agreement between the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the government of Liberia signed in 2015 through a US$257 million power and roads sector compact; in Guinea, its funding is supporting Guinea’s power sector in coordination with the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), the World Bank, and other development partners; and in Sierra Leone through a US$44 million partnership agreement between the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the Republic of Sierra Leone. Global Development Alliance focused on Ebola Response, Recovery and Resilience in West Africa. Expanding electricity access will directly assist countries like Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone as they continue to recover from the Ebola epidemic’s post-disaster impacts, and build more resilient energy, educational and health care systems.
The development of low-carbon energy does not guarantee an improvement in access to energy for poor populations. The link between energy and the fight against poverty require specific treatment based on a precise assessment. As far as the access of poor populations to modern energy vectors is concerned, the adoption of conventional solutions has only a small impact on global greenhouse gas emissions. However, renewable energy presents important comparative advantages in the supply of electricity to isolated populations. In addition, the development and structuring of the biomass energy system to which rural populations have privileged access enables the creation of value, which benefits poor populations while promoting energy with a favorable carbon footprint. Solutions for fighting poverty through low-carbon energy do therefore exist, but they differ greatly depending on the context and the energy vector in question. They are based on chains with quite distinct technical and economical characteristics. They have, however, a point in common, in that they require a long-term commitment to implementing the public policies essential for promoting investment in these domains with a strong social component. Some countries have succeeded in establishing a pro-active institutional framework for certain energy-related aspects of the link between energy and the fight against poverty. The challenge is to extend these practices so as to reduce the energy gap characteristic of developing countries.
About the author: Vicent S.T. Willie II is a Liberian intellectual, academician and an advocate who believes in the theory of social justice, equal opportunity and academic freedom. He is a graduate of the African Methodist Episcopal University (AMEU), with a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in Economics and Political Science; Postgraduate Diploma (PGDip) in Strategy Management from the London School of Business and Finance, UK, among others.