The study of energy poverty is difficult because measuring the degree of access to modern energy is difficult. Wouldn’t it be awesome if there were detailed, representative, and freely available data on energy poverty?

Even in countries like India, where data on rural households is generally available, there are very few detailed and representative data sets on energy poverty. Census and National Sample Survey data are representative of the population, but they contain few details on energy access. More detailed surveys typically focus on small areas or their sampling fails to be representative.

To relax the data constraints that have impeded social science research on energy poverty, I and my collaborators are delighted to introduce ACCESS, a freely available data set on energy poverty in rural India.

The ACCESS data set contains detailed information on energy for 8,565 households from 714 villages across six states of India (Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, and West Bengal). The sampling is conducted such that the data are representative of rural areas in the six states, and we have also validated the representativeness with comparisons to recent household data from the National Sample Survey of India. Village identifiers from the 2011 Census of India are included.

Besides socio-economic characteristics and comprehensive modules on access to electricity and cooking fuels, the data set also contains information about subjective satisfaction and policy preferences. The data set also contains details on the use of decentralized energy technologies, such as solar power and efficient cook stoves.

The data set is described in a recent Nature Energy study (gated content) and an earlier report on rural energy access published by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water.

Besides studies of energy access, the data can be used for power analysis and as a baseline for field experiments.

Anyone can use the data for any non-commercial purposes, provided you cite the originaL NE study:

Aklin, Michaël, Chao-yo Cheng, Johannes Urpelainen, Karthik Ganesan, and Abhishek Jain. 2016. “Factors Affecting Household Satisfaction with Electricity Supply in Rural India.” Nature Energy 1, Article number: 16170. DOI: 10.1038/nenergy.2016.170. (http://www.nature.com/articles/nenergy2016170)

Energy poverty is one of today’s great global challenges and a key component of sustainable development, so we need all hands on deck. Making ACCESS freely available to anyone is but one step in the right direction.

If anyone’s interested in discussing new ideas on what to do with the data, what kind of data we should collect next, and – most importantly – how we can make progress in ending energy poverty in a sustainable fashion, please get in touch.

Tuesday night was a huge disappointment for so many of us. I personally never gave Trump a chance, and as the bad news kept coming in, I realized that I had no Plan B. My future plans as an environmentalist and a social scientist were based on the assumption that the next government would rely on academic researchers to offer advice on good policies and strategies.

I was wrong. It’s pretty clear that we all will be playing defense instead.

Over the past 48 hours, many people have shared their thoughts and ideas on the challenges that lie ahead. I am not going to comment here on what to expect under President Trump, as that issue has been covered more than thoroughly (NYT; Vox; Vox-2; Revkin; Stavins; Hale) and now we just have to wait and see.

Instead, I am going to talk about what we all can do. These thoughts are preliminary but at least I can say that this has been my obsessive focus for the past 48 hours.

There is little reason to expect President Trump to support the Paris Agreement, but international action on climate mitigation and sustainable energy remain critical. Renewable energy, fuel subsidy reform, and preventing deforestation are just some examples of approaches that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These approaches also promise many tangible benefits, such as reduced air pollution and improving energy access, to major emitters from China to India and Brazil. They are not critically threatened by President Trump, so those of us working on them should move ahead, full steam.

At the same time, President Trump resurrects an old question: what should global climate cooperation look like without American leadership? This question was hot in the days of the Bush administration, but the world has changed and the United States is not as pivotal as it was in, say, 2005. The Kyoto Protocol has disappeared and we now have the Paris Agreement. Practical, policy-relevant analysis of strategies is very important, and I intend to start new work on this topic pretty much immediately.

In the United States, the federal government will probably not do much in the coming four years and Obama’s signature contributions, such as the Clean Power Plan, are in grave danger. However, total paralysis across all levels is not in the cards. Exploiting opportunities for climate policy at the state level is more important than in a long time, so it’s time to ramp up research, advocacy, and policy work in the states. Many of us worked on this topic in the Bush era, and it’s time to revisit these lessons and adjust them to new realities.

The third issue that cannot be avoided under President Trump is opposition to fossil fuel projects. Recently, these projects had lost their momentum because of low energy prices and new environmental regulations. Under President Trump, mobilization against coal-fired power plants and tar sands may again become very important. Supporting organizations that engage in this kind of work, such as the Sierra Club, whether financially or by volunteering or with research, is a priority for me.

Finally, there is the question of electoral politics. Climate and energy issues played virtually no role in the campaign, so it seems that focusing on educating voters or trying to encourage climate voting is a lost cause. The reality is that one of the two political parties is committed to sustainable energy and climate mitigation – and the other is not. The implication is pretty clear: without a Democratic Congress and President, the federal government is not going to be in the high-ambition coalition.

 

 

Rural electrification efforts across the world have mostly focused on increasing the number of grid connections available to household. National flagship programs from Ghana to Brazil and India set ambitious goals of reaching universal electricity access by connecting household farther and farther away from urban centers.

The problem with this approach is that it ignores the quality of electricity supply. A grid connection is not worth much if electricity is rarely available. In the end, connecting households to the grid may do little to improve their welfare unless the generation, transmission, and distribution companies can offer high-quality electricity when the households need it.

In a recent Nature Energy study, we looked at this issue by estimating the relationship between different components of the quality of electricity supply and households’ satisfaction with their domestic lighting and electricity services. Using data from over 8,500 household surveys in six states, we examined how factors such as hours of electricity available (duration), the frequency of outages, and voltage fluctuation shaped households’ subjective satisfaction.

The results were striking: increasing hours of electricity available to an electrified household by one standard deviation would increase subjective satisfaction as much as connecting a non-electrified household. Because the average availability of electricity in the sample remained below 13 hours, increasing the duration of electricity supply furnished large benefits to the subjects.

The intuition behind this result is pretty simple. Rural households almost always use electricity for lights and mobile charging; many also use appliances such as fans and televisions. All these technologies are time-sensitive: the electricity has to be available at the time of use, unless the household is wealthy enough to invest in energy storage.

These results have some important implications for efforts to eradicate energy poverty. As household electrification rates across the world continue to increase, governments must begin to grapple with the much more difficult challenge of improving the quality of supply through power sector reforms and perhaps by encouraging high-quality off-grid electricity services.

Achieving these goals is much more challenging than connecting households, but the returns are large. Our study shows that regardless of whether household electrification produces direct economic gains, it is strongly associated with the quality of domestic life – and that’s gotta count for something.

In many countries, the low quality of electricity supply slows down economic growth. Without a continuous and reliable supply of electricity, firms face difficulties in improving their productivity and competitiveness. All key sectors of the economy – agriculture, industry, and services – benefit from electricity as an input.

In recent work published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (gated; ungated pre-print), Joonseok Yang and I investigate the value of a specific power sector reform for encouraging private investment in power generation. We focus on the problem of electricity generation, asking a simple question: how can governments encourage private investors to increase generation capacity?

The results from the study suggest that allowing independent power production (IPP) is enough to produce a large increase in private investment in electricity generation. Both domestic and international investments increase, and the private increase easily compensates for any reduction in public investment in generation capacity.

These results are good news and important for policy because IPP reform is among the easiest available to governments. It does not require fundamental, politically controversial changes to the governance of the power sector. The government simply allows independent producers to generate and sell power to state-owned electric utilities based on purchase agreements.

The results are also somewhat surprising, given that governments’ inability to commit credibly to policies is a thread running through the literature on investment. But when we investigated cases of IPP reform, we found that governments had a good track record of honoring their commitments under purchase agreements.

As governments aspire to fuel their economies and reach universal electricity access, power sector reforms are bound to play a central role. While IPP reform does not solve difficult problems in the distribution sector, such as electricity theft or agricultural electricity subsidies, this policy does allow governments to rapidly expand their electricity generation capacity. In countries that face capacity constraints in the power sector, our evidence should encourage governments to pass policies that encourage independent power production.

“Negotiators from more than 170 countries on Saturday reached a legally binding accord to counter climate change by cutting the worldwide use of a powerful planet-warming chemical used in air-conditioners and refrigerators,” describes the New York Times the successful negotiations on the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol.

The Kigali Amendment is a big deal because it phases out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The wealthy countries begin to phase out these powerful greenhouse gases already in 2019, most developing countries follow in 2024, and some major HFC producers such as India in 2028. Estimates suggest that the Kigali Amendment alone might reduce global warming by almost 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2100.

But the Kigali Amendment is also a small step. It does not get us any closer to solving the hideously complicated political problems related to reducing the use of fossil fuels. Because HFCs are only used in a specific, heavily concentrated sector and alternatives are readily available, the bitter conflicts related to carbon emissions do not surface.

In the Kigali Amendment, almost all countries in the world had very little to lose. Major industrialized countries benefit from a deal that phases out dirty chemicals and creates markets for cleaner substitutes – a pattern we have seen before in chemicals negotiations. Most developing countries do not produce these chemicals, so the number of countries that stand to lose from HFC phase-out is very, very small. In the negotiations, these countries – especially India – were given extra time to adjust, and a deal was closed.

The difference in the logic of HFC phase-out and carbon abatement can be seen by comparing the Kigali Amendment and the Paris Agreement. The Kigali Amendment says phase-out: the substances are to disappear from the face of the earth. The Paris Agreement says that countries can do whatever they want, but they need to submit documents for review.

This is not a bad thing. The Kigali Amendment is a good, aggressive solution to an easy but important problem. The Paris Agreement is a partial, complicated solution to a massive and massively important problem.

A few years back, I proposed that the future of climate policy is in big dreams and small wins. There is no silver bullet or master plan, given the complex global politics of climate change. But innovative, pragmatic negotiators can help governments solve a series of smaller problems that gradually reduce the rate of global warming. It probably will not be enough for 2 degrees Celsius, but every reduction of 0.01 degrees Celsius is worth celebrating.

Do democratic publics punish politicians for failing to provide public services? Sanctioning poor performance is a key means by which voters hold their government officials accountable. But when 700 million people lost power during the July 2012 blackout in India, public confidence in politicians increased, with troubling implications for dealing with abrupt failures of public service delivery in an age of climate change.

Democratic accountability relies heavily on voters’ ability to sanction and reward political leaders based on their performance. When voters assess their leaders, they can reward good outcomes such as high economic growth or high-quality public services.

Indeed, a great deal of evidence suggests that incumbents suffer at the polls for poor economic performance and failures in public service delivery. This logic of electoral backlash gives elected officials an incentive to work hard for their own political survival. (To be sure, voters also appear to punish incumbents even for events beyond their control, such as natural disasters and even shark attacks.)

However, evidence from India suggests that people may not always lose confidence in public officials in the wake of a massive failure in public service delivery. On July 30, after a circuit breaker tripped, seven northern Indian states plus Delhi completely lost power, followed by eleven more states in the northeast the following day. The July 30-31 outage was the largest blackout in human history, with 700 million people losing electricity.

Using data from the India Human Development Survey, which happened to be in the field during the July 2012 outage, we show in a working paper that the blackout caused an increase in people’s confidence in politicians. Moreover, the ruling Indian National Congress (INC) actually increased its vote share in the state elections that took place later that year.

We attribute these results to a “rally around the flag” effect: people increase support for their political leaders in times of crisis. Existing studies suggest that crises, particularly when they involve foreign enemies, tend to increase public support for politicians because of the fear and anxiety provoked by a traumatic event. This emotional reaction, in turn, leads people to seek a rapid, decisive solution to the crisis – people rally around the flag because they want their leader to solve the crisis. As a sudden, unexpected shock that threw much of the country into turmoil, the July 2012 blackout in India represented a period of national crisis from which voters sought relief from public officials and—at least in the short-term—held their anger for the failures of government energy policy at bay.

The implications of these findings are troubling. The less voters hold public officials accountable for policy failures, the less incentive politicians have to provide services effectively. If policymakers do not suffer during crises and disasters—even those caused by long-term failures of policy such as the outage—then preparedness efforts may hold less appeal than they should.

This is all the more alarming given that climate change is likely to make natural disasters more common in the coming years. Extreme weather events are going to strain public service delivery to India’s massive, growing, and poor population. If leaders in India expect a boost of confidence from abrupt failures in key services, their incentive to invest in disaster preparedness and climate adaptation is weakened. While the leaders gain, the people pay the price.

Note: This is a joint post with Brian Blankenship, a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Columbia University.

 

Governments around the world spend vast amounts of money to subsidize the consumption of fossil fuels: oil, natural gas, and coal. In 2014, for example, consumption subsidies for fossil fuels amounted to $493 billion. These subsidies are both a waste of money and an environmental disaster, as they encourage people to burn fuels that release pollution into the atmosphere.

If fuel subsidies are really bad idea, why don’t governments simply eliminate them and use the money more productively? Political economy studies of fuel subsidies suggest three reasons: popular backlash, opposition by vested interests, and low institutional capacity for better social policies, such as cash transfers to the poor.

In a recent study, Joel E. Smith and I ask whether international organizations (IOs) could help governments remove fuel subsidies. We begin with the idea that IOs are mostly too weak to force governments do anything. If a sovereign government feels the need to hand out fuel subsidies, the typical IO cannot stop the waste.

But IOs can play a different role. If governments interested in reducing their fuel subsidies cooperate under an IO, they can make public commitments to eliminating their subsidies.

The IO can support these public commitments through mechanisms like regular peer reviews by the member states. Such peer reviews both facilitate learning and raise the reputational costs of reneging on one’s commitments to reduce fuel subsidies.

So while an IO cannot force governments to act, it can support their own efforts by making their promises more credible. The appropriate role for IOs in fuel subsidy reforms is to support governments interested in dismantling their bad policies but face political difficulty in doing so. With the help of the IO, these governments can improve their odds of weathering the political storm that fuel subsidy reductions produce.

For empirical evidence, we examine the role of two quite different IOs — Group of 20 (G20) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) — in fuel subsidy reforms. The key lesson from these studies is that the G20 has faced difficulties in committing to fuel subsidy removal largely because its membership is too diverse and fragmented to agree on policy priorities and commit to them.

Last month, I wrote in The Hill about the G20’s failure to make a clear public commitment on fuel subsidies at this year’s summit. Here, again, we saw the difficulties that the G20 faces: it is very, very hard to get 20 major powers to agree on what to do about fuel subsidies.

As countries develop their national plans to mitigate climate change under the bottom-up Paris agreement, eliminating fuel subsidies is increasingly urgent. Different IOs should be prepared to support interested governments in developing and implementing reputational commitments for fuel subsidy reform — without forgetting that fuel subsidy reforms are national and cannot be forced on reluctant leaders.

Note: This is a joint blog post with Meir Alkon (Princeton University) and S.P. Harish (New York University).

Can the poor afford modern energy? In India, the answer is yes. When electricity and liquid fuels are available, Indian households are ready to put relatively high proportions of their expenditure towards these sources of energy. This high willingness to pay suggests that improving access to modern energy can generate large benefits for the population.

As access to modern fuels improves in the developing world, affordability becomes an increasingly important issue. Even if households can access abundant quantities of energy, they may not be able to afford this newly available energy. Access to modern fuels does not guarantee that households will reap benefits from improved lighting, electric appliances, mechanical power, or cleaner cooking.

Survey research suggests that the cost of energy is a major burden for households in many developing countries. In Bangladesh, over 40% of households spend more than 10% of their total income on energy (gated content). In India, the problem is even worse, as the average household spends 13% of its income on energy (ungated pre-print).

To understand patterns and drivers of energy affordability, our new study (forthcoming, Energy for Sustainable Development; ungated pre-print) analyzes changes in household energy expenditures over time, using nationally representative data from India. Combining household surveys between the years 1987 and 2010, we described and predicted the affordability of household energy across the country.

The findings show that high energy expenditures have many causes. At the state level, pricing reforms of energy – in particular, electricity – seem to impose a heavy burden of increased energy expenditure on households. While urban households have steadily reduced their energy expenditure relative to total disposable income, we observe no such positive change among rural households.

At the household level, modern energy access is a key driver of energy expenditures. As households gained access to electricity or liquid fuels for cooking, their expenditures increased by almost 50 percent.

On the other hand, rising incomes do not appear to explain growing energy expenditures. In fact, household energy expenditures are negatively correlated with other expenditures, though the correlation is very weak.

This result suggests that households consider energy a highly valuable commodity. They are willing to spend significant amounts of money on energy, despite limited disposable income. Even very poor households are willing to forgo other goods and services if modern energy is available to them.

If access to modern energy is highly valued across the Indian population, then the policy implication is that the government should prioritize access over reducing energy prices. People’s high willingness to pay for modern energy suggests that the lack of access remains the key issue. This is not to suggest that energy prices do not matter or that poor Indian households would always continue to pay a high proportion of their income towards their energy needs. What our study shows is that, across both rural and urban households, energy access remains a much more critical issue compared to its cost.

When poor households lack access to electricity and liquid fuels for cooking, the socio-economic cost is high. Thus, the goal of universalizing modern energy access in countries without such universal access remains an important policy priority.

Note: This post is written together with Patrick Bayer (School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow). Follow him on Twitter at @pol_economist.

In July 2016, the German government decided to abolish the country’s feed-in tariff (FIT) for renewable electricity generation. Instead, the government now plans to auction contracts for renewable electricity deployment to the lowest bidders.

The FIT is a policy that basically forces electric utilities to buy renewable electricity from generators for a premium price. Since 1990, the German FIT had played a key role in making the country a pioneer in the use of renewable energy. Why did Germany replace the FIT after almost three decades of unparalleled growth in renewable electricity generation?

As a policy, the FIT has many virtues in the early stages of renewable electricity generation. It reduces uncertainty for electricity producers as the FIT guarantees a fixed, above-market price for a defined time period, such as ten years.

The German law also gives priority to renewable electricity, thus granting grid access to renewable producers. This design protects independent small-scale producers by preventing electric utilities from closing the electricity market. Politically, this feature is key to understanding the FIT’s popularity: it creates benefits to a large number of small generators.

No wonder, then, that the FIT has been the most critical driver behind Germany’s aggressive growth in renewables. In fact, renewable electricity generation since 1990 increased by a factor of ten, with renewables now accounting for almost a third in the country’s electricity mix.

However, the cost of the FIT policy increases over time, as the cost of generating renewable electricity declines. This development typically shows in increased electricity prices for household customers. As a result of the FIT, average retail prices have soared, at least over the last decade. Residential consumers are charged about 35 cents/kWh compared to about 13 cents/kWh in the United States, making Germany the country of some of the highest electricity prices in Europe.

Germany’s decision to drop the FIT policy and to become an auctioneer is thus an attempt to control the rate and cost of growth in renewable electricity generation. Auctioning not only promises to reduce the cost of renewable electricity generation, but it also gives policymakers more flexibility in achieving their goals.

The German government can now create “deployment corridors” by setting renewable energy production targets for different technologies. In turn, the “breathing caps” adjust the premium for renewables depending on how well actually installed capacities match targets.

The move into auctions also shows political acumen. Now that renewable electricity generation is much cheaper than just a decade ago, rapid growth in the sector is no longer the overriding priority. Now the question is whether Germany can keep increasing the share of renewables in the power sector without continued increases in electricity prices and other problems, such as outages.

Indeed, the German FIT had recently drawn a lot of fire. Critics of the FIT point to the continued use of polluting coal in Germany, as renewables have reduced the use of natural gas and nuclear power. Others note that electricity has now become a “luxury good” in Germany, no longer affordable to the poor.

Now that cost-effectiveness of renewable production is becoming more and more important relative to mere growth, tailoring cash incentives towards the government’s strategic expansion plans is key to success. Auctions enable continued growth in renewables at a low cost relative to the FIT, while giving the government more control over technologies and types of renewables. In this sense, auctions promise to be a useful tool in Germany’s pursuit of a “new normal” in renewable electricity production.

In applauding the Merkel government’s policy choice, we do not want to belittle the challenges of designing auctions. It remains to be seen if – and how much – the German auctions reduce the cost of renewable capacity installation and whether the disappearance of the certainty provided by the FIT creates problems.

A particular challenge for Germany is that auctions are not suited for supporting the growth of small-scale, distributed renewable electricity generation. Because small producers cannot compete on cost basis with major players or do the complicated paperwork in bidding, different policies are needed to support this segment. The goal here must be to continue to support distributed electricity generation in the country of Bürgerenergie – citizen energy. The German government recognizes these issues. For example, small installations still benefit from an FIT up to a certain limit.

To sum it all up, the German government is again leading the way in renewable energy policy. Auctions are the future for renewable energy now that the sector has left growing pains behind. However, much depends on the design of auctions and finding the right complementary policies for small-scale, distributed renewable electricity generation.

India’s progress in electrifying rural areas – first villages, and then households – has been impressive. According to the 2011 Census of India, the rural electrification rate had increased to 55% from just 44% in 2001. Since then, national electrification programs have made further progress. An original survey that I conducted in collaboration with the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), for example, shows that household electrification rates have grown fast in six large, northern states of India.

Given rapid progress in rural electrification, the next challenge for India is to improve the quality of electricity service. In our survey, we found that people are by and large dissatisfied with their electricity service because of problems such as limited hours of supply. This video produced by CEEW nicely illustrates the realities of electricity access in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

As household electrification rates increase, the quality of electricity service becomes more and more important. In India, (mostly state-owned) electricity distribution companies are responsible for this service. Because politicians force these companies to offer inexpensive electricity to rural consumer and agricultural users, these companies often make a loss from supplying electricity to rural areas. The problem is made worse by pervasive electricity theft. As Harish and Tongia show with data from the state of Karnataka, distribution companies thus provide little power to rural customers at peak time, instead supplying industrial and urban customers who pay a higher tariff.

In this setting, improving the quality of rural electricity service is a chicken-and-egg problem. Rural customers are understandably unwilling to pay higher tariffs for bad service, but distribution companies cannot afford to improve the service without higher tariffs.

One of my research areas for the future is to find new solutions to this problem. I am doing field experiments, public opinion surveys, and interviews with politicians and electric utility managers to assess interventions that are both politically feasible and promise significant improvements in the situation. Now is the time to study such interventions, as rural electrification rates are rapidly improving not just in India, but across the world. All this begins with a trip to rural Uttar Pradesh in the second half of June — stay tuned for updates!