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.