Increasing Access to Energy in Fast-Growing Cities Is an Economic, Environmental, Social Imperative
According to a new report from World Resources Institute’s Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities, millions of residents in some of the fastest growing cities in the world don’t have access to clean, reliable energy, and the challenge of reaching them is not getting easier.
“People are often surprised to find that lack of access to electricity and reliance on dirty cooking fuels is not just a rural problem but affects many urban areas in the global south,” said Ani Dasgupta, global director of WRI Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities. “Cities need to take control of their energy strategy – they can make a difference, and we know that cities and their residents can only thrive when dependable energy services are available for everyone.”
In 2012, only 58% of the urban population had access to electricity in low-income countries, and nearly 500 million urban residents worldwide used dirty and harmful cooking fuels like charcoal and wood. By 2050, it is projected that the world’s urban population will grow by 2.4 billion from 2015, with the growth concentrated mostly in Africa and Asia, creating unprecedented urban energy access challenges, especially for under-served populations. What’s more, the old carbon-intensive model of development undertaken in the global north is no longer tenable, given a greater concern for the health impacts of air pollution and the need to mitigate energy insecurity and climate risks.
“Putting a focus on clean cooking fuels is particularly important from a gender equity perspective,” said Bipasha Baruah, Canada research chair in global women’s issues at the University of Western Ontario. “Cooking with dirty fuels is responsible for 3% of the world’s total disease burden and women and children are disproportionately represented in those numbers.”
The latest installment of WRI’s flagship World Resources Report, “Towards a More Equal City,” provides solutions that can improve the health of residents, the environment and the overall economies of cities.
“The challenge is how to power these growing cities in an environmentally and economically sustainable way—one that protects the planet from runaway emissions and is financially feasible,” said Michael Westphal, lead author and senior associate for WRI Ross Centre’s sustainable finance team.
The study focuses on three solutions that cities in the global south themselves can implement:
1. Shift to cleaner cooking fuels. Switching to modern cooking fuels, such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), would lead to the most dramatic reductions in pollution and health improvements of any urban energy solution, as well as time and costs savings in many cases. Indoor air pollution from dirty cooking fuels caused as many as 550,000 premature deaths in urban areas in 2010. The problem is easier to tackle in urban areas than rural, as cities have the infrastructure and density to allow for the development of a distribution network for modern fuels and accelerated access. In Brazil, less than 20 % of households had access to LPG or natural gas in the 1960s. The government created national infrastructure for production and distribution, developed a retail market for distribution, and subsidised fuel for poor families. Now, 100 % of urban households have access to LPG.
2. Install more distributed renewable energy systems. The 19th century approach of grid connection cannot alone solve the problem of energy access in the global south. Distributed energy systems, like solar panels, can provide access to cleaner and more affordable electricity in urban areas. Rooftop solar photovoltaic systems can provide energy security, climate change resilience and economic opportunities. Globally, solar panels create more jobs per unit of electricity than any other energy source. They can also reduce costs related to transmission and distribution, and rental models can make initial costs more affordable. Distributed solar is taking off in sub-Saharan Africa. From 2014 to 2015, the number of households using pay-as-you-go systems in the region doubled to 500,000. One company has connected more than 280,000 homes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and is continuing to connect 500 new homes each day. Cape Town and several other cities in the global south now allow those with solar photovoltaic systems to sell excess electricity back to the grid, a process called net metering.
3. Introduce building energy efficiency measures. Building codes and appliance standards that encourage energy efficiency reduce energy use and costs. Better, cooler buildings make cities more livable and resilient during heatwaves and bring health benefits. Efficiency measures can reduce energy use by up to 50 to 90 % in new buildings and 50 to 75 % in existing buildings. And using the best available household appliances and equipment can reduce energy costs by 40 to 50 %. Every kilowatt hour saved in cities that depend on power stations using dirty fuels also means reduced greenhouse gas emissions. In China, the city of Tianjin has enacted its own building regulations above and beyond the national code resulting in a 30% reduction in heating demand. Residential buildings built between 2005 and 2009 in the city have saved an amount of energy equivalent to investing in a new 300 megawatt district heating plant.
“These solutions require action by all actors, including national, state, and local governments, the development community, and NGOs. Successful efforts should be applauded, encouraged and replicated,” said Westphal. “In this urban century, without improving energy services for the under-served, many cities will fall short of their potential to drive economic growth, enhance the environment and create spaces where everyone can live, work and thrive.”