Since the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted at the UN General Assembly in 2015, there has been a renewed focus on promoting sustainable, affordable, and reliable energy.

Despite the progress made over the last fifteen years, more than a billion people around the world still lack access to electricity. The gap is particularly stark in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 32 countries have access levels ranging from as low as 5 percent to less than 25 percent. At the current pace of new connections and population growth, it is estimated that the number of people without electricity access in Sub-Saharan Africa will increase even further from 600 million to 935 million by 2030.

Meeting the United Nations goal of sustainable energy for all by 2030 will, therefore, require a different approach.  By some estimates, the number of new connections per year will need to go up ten-fold, while the level of public and private investment in electricity access projects will need to increase seven-fold.

Lessons from the World Bank Group’s experience

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Recent evaluations by the Independent Evaluation Group have looked at the role of the World Bank Group in promoting electricity access, in an effort to better understand what works, and why. The World Bank Group has long been a major player in supporting electricity access in low access countries. Between 2000 and 2014, the Bank Group’s lending to electrification projects averaged US$1.5 billion per year, compared to about US$1.4 billion from all other multilateral banks and bilateral donors, and US$0.8 billion from the private sector.

So what insights can we draw from the World Bank Group’s experience? We highlight five key insights below.

Rapid access scale-up is possible, even beginning at low national income levels. Within the last two decades, Vietnam, Lao PDR, and Indonesia, beginning from low income and access levels, have expanded their coverage to high or near-universal levels. Bangladesh has rapidly deployed off-grid household solar home systems to provide basic access to nearly 4 million households or 12 percent of its population since the early 2000s.  Mongolia has provided similar access to most of its nomadic population. 

Advances in off-grid products and service delivery models make it possible to provide speedy and affordable basic access to poor and remote populations. Access to small quantities of modern electricity —sufficient to power basic modern lighting, cell phone charging, and a small radio or television—can trigger a giant and transformative step for those without access. The World Bank and IFC have demonstrated how technologically and commercially fast-evolving solar home products, and pico-solar products (‘Lighting Africa’ and Lighting Global’ programs), can quickly bring such basic access to millions of households that might otherwise have to wait for years or even decades for the conventional grid o reach them.

Complementary and coordinated grid and off-grid electrification is needed to ultimately provide electricity access of desirable adequacy, reliability and quality.  “Grid vs. Off-Grid” is a false dichotomy. The experience of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the ongoing efforts in Rwanda, Kenya, and Myanmar show that the conventional grid and off-grid electrification can and must expand in a complementary and coordinated manner. 

Retaining focus on the underlying structural causes of sector financial viability is key to ensuring sustainable electricity service delivery.  Several utilities in low access countries have been in a de facto permanent financial crisis for many years or even decades. This clearly impacts the adequacy, quality and reliability of electricity service delivery. IEG’s analysis shows that most low access countries need sustained support through complementary investment and development policy operations for favorable and enduring sector financial performance. 

Mobilizing broad-based public support and attracting private investment requires a sector-wide architecture and systematic approach. Overall, IEG’s analysis underlines the promise of a sector-wide organizing architecture and programmatic financing for rallying and orchestrating stakeholder participation in closer alignment with national priorities; as well as mobilizing financing from both public and private sources for an integrated grid and off-grid rollout. Specifically, this would take the form of a sector wide investment prospectus for grid and off-grid expansion based on a least cost geospatial rollout plan, incentivized by an enabling policy and institutional framework, to achieve the time-bound targets of a Government. The past experiences of Thailand, Tunisia, and Morocco, the more recent experiences of Vietnam and Lao PDR and, and the emerging results from the consciously designed and ongoing programs of Rwanda, Kenya, and Myanmar, bear testimony to this approach.

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