Perspective | Published:

A research agenda for a people-centred approach to energy access in the urbanizing global south

Nature Energyvolume 2pages776779 (2017) | Download Citation


Energy access is typically viewed as a problem for rural areas, but people living in urban settings also face energy challenges that have not received sufficient attention. A revised agenda in research and practice that puts the user and local planning complexities centre stage is needed to change the way we look at energy access in urban areas, to understand the implications of the concentration of vulnerable people in slums and to identify opportunities for planned management and innovation that can deliver urban energy transitions while leaving no one behind. Here, we propose a research agenda focused on three key issues: understanding the needs of urban energy users; enabling the use of context-specific, disaggregated data; and engaging with effective modes of energy and urban governance. This agenda requires interdisciplinary scholarship across the social and physical sciences to support local action and deliver large-scale, inclusive transformations.

Most people without access to electricity and clean fuels live in rural areas1. Nevertheless, the challenges of energy access in urban areas are also considerable and attract policy attention. Over 880 million people live in slums in developing regions, in households that suffer multiple deprivations in urban services, space and security of tenure2. Such households routinely lack access to a reliable and affordable supply of electricity and clean fuels. About 105 million people lack electricity in urban areas in sub-Saharan Africa alone3. In countries such as Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda or Tanzania, less than half of the urban households have access to an electricity connection2. People living in urban areas face specific energy challenges, including unreliability of energy services, lack of affordability, lack of access to microfinance and insecurities related to tenure issues and the erroneous perceptions of slums4.

Progress towards global objectives for universal energy access has been disappointing since the UN Secretary-General launched them in 2011. According to the Global Tracking Framework3, 1.05 billion people worldwide did not have access to electricity in 2014, down from 1.06 billion in 2012. The access rate increased by 0.27% per year, which is not sufficient to achieve the goal of universal electrification by 2030. The figures for access to clean cooking are even more discouraging: over 3 billion people still lacked access to clean fuels and technologies in 2014. With a rate of improvement of 0.46% a year, the goal of universal access to clean fuels and technologies by 2030 seems unachievable.

The challenge of achieving universal access to modern energy services in urban areas highlights the strong linkages between two Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SDG7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) and SDG11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities). Both SDGs can be advanced simultaneously through forms of inclusive urban planning that promote energy sustainability and resilience. This requires two changes in policy approaches.

First, policies need to address the lack of installed capacity for energy access and limited availability of clean fuels, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa5. Addressing this persistent challenge will require a substantial amount of public finance while recognizing a diversity of feasible provision models6,7. Progress has concentrated in Asia, where multi-actor efforts in the context of industrialization have improved the rates of energy access in urban areas. For example, in Indonesia, a national-level programme including governmental institutions, businesses and consumers led to a large shift from kerosene to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and contributed directly to the alleviation of extreme poverty8,9. In sub-Saharan Africa, in contrast, energy access rates remain stagnant. Energy access rates have even worsened in countries such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Second, there is a need to challenge dominant paradigms of energy provision. Unfortunately, the assumption that urbanization is akin to an extension of the electricity grid has long dominated debates of energy access in urban areas. This assumption puts a disproportionate emphasis on electrification at the expense of understanding the need for fuels and technologies for clean cooking10,11. Moreover, this assumption obscures the complex ways in which energy access barriers manifest in urban areas and, in particular, the specific limitations that emerge in inadequately serviced, informal or peri-urban areas12,13,14,15,16. Delivering sustainable energy access in urban areas requires a multidimensional understanding of users’ needs within diverse urban contexts.

These two policy changes call for a renewed research agenda on universal access to sustainable energy in urban areas. In this Perspective, we outline such an agenda. We frame progress towards sustainable energy as a complex, multifaceted challenge in the next section. Delving deeper into why the global energy challenge continues to haunt contemporary societies in the age of urbanization, we then analyse barriers to energy access in urban areas. Finally, alongside a discussion of policy implications, we outline the contours of an interdisciplinary research agenda that considers users’ needs, explores data gaps and prioritizes systems of governance that can deliver urban energy services in a sustainable and equitable manner.

The multidimensional challenge of universal energy access

One of the greatest obstacles in achieving progress towards energy access is the dominance of a technocentric approach in policy and decision making. Energy provision is routinely thought of as a technical challenge, exclusively dependent on achieving economies of scale sufficient to extend grids or market chains. Most often, energy access is erroneously represented as a binary phenomenon, in which we can identify the precise moment after which energy needs are fully met4,17,18. This leads to definitions of energy access that are ‘too modest’ and do not reflect the many dimensions of energy demand19.

The energy ladder model dominates debates on urbanization and energy access. This model assumes that urbanization enables households to move up the energy ladder because their inhabitants rationalize the use of energy, adopting cleaner and more expensive fuels as their income increases20. As a result, energy access in urban areas is most often treated as a homogeneous process of fuel adoption and grid expansion. Empirical evidence has long shown, however, that households use multiple fuels simultaneously21. More recently, the model has been redefined to focus on energy services rather than just fuels22. Nevertheless, the energy ladder model lacks explanatory power to tell us why low-income urban populations cannot access the services they need.

Instead, energy access should be understood as part of a progressive process of wellbeing improvement. Access is not only dependent on the supply of electricity and fuels. The Global Tracking Framework already recognizes, for example, that clean cooking depends both on the fuels and on the technologies used in cooking. Additional evidence shows that energy services also depend on the built environment, such as the space available for cooking, ventilation and illumination within buildings, and available appliances23. From street lighting to the maintenance of green spaces, energy access is closely linked to the development of the built environment and public space. In slums, access to energy is directly linked to livelihood opportunities, so investment in energy services is a key driver of development24.

Rather than prioritizing the delivery of a predetermined model of energy supply, programmes for sustainable energy access should focus on delivering the types of service provision that will meet people’s aspirations. Recent calls to focus on the productive uses of energy and the linkages to income-generating activities25 highlight that achieving the SDG7 requires examining the socio-economic conditions and perspectives of those who lack energy access. Addressing energy access from the people’s perspective involves location-specific interventions that engage communities in energy planning activities4,18. Energy access also depends on community involvement to develop business models that integrate technical concerns with institutional frameworks and user preferences26,27,28.

For example, more than half of the urban population in Rwanda lacks access to the electricity grid. Although over 65% of the households in Kigali were connected to the grid in 2011, only 17% of the households in other cities in the country had a grid connection3. Renewable energy technologies may provide an alternative way to make energy more accessible. Some users of solar home systems in rural and peri-urban Rwanda require energy for in-household use only (such as lighting or mobile phone charging), whereas others require higher levels of access to power small businesses and bigger appliances, such as welding machines18. User needs are addressed in performance contracts, called imihigo, which provide an official framework for achieving development goals at all levels of the country’s administration, including at the household level. Each year, households sign official commitments, including commitments to improve energy access. The source of energy is then chosen depending on the resources available, their safety and affordability.

Energy access is linked to other basic services such as water and sanitation, and depends on programmes to upgrade the built environment29,30. Substantial gains can be made through interventions in urban areas, even in countries where there have been clear advances in energy access. In Ghana, about 1.7 million people gained access to electricity every year from 2012 to 2014. Huge rolling blackouts, however, have compromised these advances, particularly for poorer households lacking backup systems. This case calls for research looking beyond infrastructure coverage to examine, for example, how poverty and energy access are correlated in urban areas and how to ensure supply reliability in poorer households31.

The planning challenge is to provide electricity, cleaner fuels and technologies in rapidly growing urban and peri-urban areas within complex and often undefined institutional frameworks and ever-growing demands for infrastructure12. Inclusive energy planning processes can support the recognition of the unmet needs of the urban poor while simultaneously acknowledging the urgency of shifting aspirations among those whose energy uses are already unsustainable3,32.

Barriers to energy access in urban areas

Energy access is embedded within multiple-tiered deprivation processes faced by the urban poor. Changes to underlying factors, such as upgrades in the built environment, tenure status, access to decision-making processes or market access to key appliances, may have as much impact on people’s energy access as any improvement in generation capacity or fuel supply. Three key reasons support the case for looking at energy access in urban areas: the prevalence of misunderstandings about such access; the concentration of vulnerable people in urban areas, especially in slums; and potential opportunities for planned management and innovation in business models at the local level.

On-the-ground evidence of the challenges of energy access in urban areas is scant, and there have been few efforts to document these experiences and compare them systematically. The Global Network on Energy for Sustainable Development (GNESD) and the Poor People’s Energy Outlook (PPEO) are two pioneering efforts to develop a people-centred perspective on energy access that engage with the specific challenges of urban areas. GNESD, funded by the UN Environment Programme, is a network that has studied energy access in urban areas since the mid-2000s, with regional studies in Kenya, Thailand, Brazil, Senegal, South Africa, Argentina and India. The PPEO is an annual report funded by the UK Department for International Development and Practical Action since 2010. Both programmes have influenced policy making at the international level, for example in the development of the Multi-Tier Framework to assess energy poverty33.

GNESD found that informal settlements are often inadequately serviced, and residents may have precarious structures of home ownership and limited access to both livelihood opportunities and institutions that can address their needs and concerns. Data produced at the national level rarely include slum areas, which are often seen by governments (national and municipal) as illegal settlements3,23. When data can be accessed, the needs of the urban poor may be underestimated because of the exclusion of informal settlements in the processes of documentation and planning. Problems in slums are ‘invisible’ when government officials do not acknowledge their needs or even their existence. On the one hand, local governments may lack capacity to respond to the needs of informal settlements. On the other hand, urban development practices regularly ignore or misrepresent their existence, and this may lead to conflicts over land and violence34.

Access to electricity in such conditions, for example through off-grid systems, may have transformative impacts both in terms of directly improving the lives of people at the household level, and enabling them to be recognized as urban citizens through the provision of services. Here again, communities and cooperative societies play a key role in providing business alternatives that can help to implement and deliver direct improvements in energy access to the urban poor26,35.

The GNESD team analysed the barriers to energy access in urban areas, from both the supply side and the demand side18. Some of the barriers identified in the study relate to lack of planning; in countries such as Kenya and Senegal, electrification has rarely been part of development planning. Further, lack of capacity within local governments translates into an absence of planning at the institutional level. Often, citizens distrust government institutions and public utilities, associating their practices with corruption, carelessness and lack of interest in implementing sound solutions.

Barriers also emerge from the intersection of energy issues and urban social processes. For example, high upfront costs and lack of proof of residence often lead to unauthorized means to access energy, whether this is renting backyards to poor families in South Africa, connecting through neighbours in Thailand, renting out electricity as a means of income generation in Kenya, or with the proliferation of unsafe connections in India and Senegal. In the context of a total lack of access, improvisation may be the only alternative open to the urban poor36, but it has consequences in terms of the quality of service, its safety and the distribution of responsibilities (the urban poor may, for example, end up paying more for the same service). Key urban issues, such as lack of tenure or proof of address, continue to determine energy access.

The last PPEO report, launched in October 2016, focused on national planning for energy access37. PPEO’s case studies in cities such as Maputo, Mozambique, show the limitations of a grid-based understanding of energy access in urban areas38. Services do not always reach all urban areas, particularly in areas that are inadequately serviced and unplanned neighbourhoods. Even when households have access to an electricity grid, this is not an automatic guarantee of energy access, as the service may be of poor quality and intermittent. Urban citizens may be unable to use the service because they cannot afford it or because they are unaware of how to use it. New energy services may be inappropriate to support certain cultural practices or may overlap with other fuels that already meet energy needs.

The PPEO provides evidence for the need to disaggregate energy access data alongside social variables. For example, men and women may be affected differently: energy services shape possibilities for women to access other urban services, such as sanitation in ill-lit public spaces, and livelihood opportunities. Women may benefit from access to energy, but there is little information about how this access (or lack of thereof) affects women’s labour and time. Data collected at the household level rarely reflect women’s needs and aspirations. As a result, energy policies targeting women are the exception, rather than the norm. Other factors such as age, disability, ethnic group or sexual orientation may also influence how energy access affects everyday life.

Another misunderstanding is the idea that large energy utilities are better able to contribute to the economy because they support large industrial and business areas. This does not recognize that the economies that support the urban poor are often characterized by a diversity of small enterprises that provide diverse local social and economic benefits. Access to energy at a scale targeted to support small enterprises can create direct livelihood opportunities for people living in slums. Often, small businesses and non-governmental organizations may also be effective in advancing context-based innovations. Alongside local governments, the private sector and civil society may also support action to facilitate access to sustainable energy27,28.

Both PPEO and GNESD are examples of a growing body of people-centred research on energy access in urban areas, considering both the manifestation of energy challenges in urban contexts and the opportunities to advance global goals through local governance processes.

Urgent research agendas

Achieving universal access to sustainable energy is an urgent challenge, but progress has been slow at best. In urban areas, there is space for cautious optimism, as rapid urbanization opens opportunities for investment and improved delivery of services.

The integration of urban development and energy planning agendas is a policy priority. Such integration requires an understanding of the multi-scalar nature of energy challenges and how they manifest in urban areas. There needs to be far greater consideration of often-ignored issues in energy policy, including the needs of the urban poor for clean cooking, and for better grid and off-grid electricity access: supplies and appliances must meet household needs, and support productive uses and community facilities. It also requires an inclusive policy agenda to diversify the voices that intervene in energy planning. Policy makers should find the means to include the views of non-experts and disadvantaged communities in decision-making process, to understand their actual energy needs and how these can be met within present constraints.

Additional research is needed both to improve data collection and to challenge long-held assumptions about energy access. We propose three questions to guide an emerging agenda of research. First, achieving the SDGs requires a true understanding of people’s needs, their perspectives and aspirations. The research question is: “What are the users’ needs in specific contexts?” The question calls for a deep engagement with people’s aspirations while understanding the structural constraints that shape such aspirations. Second, there is an urgent need to improve the types of energy knowledge and data available. The question is: “Do we have the appropriate information to address energy access questions?” There is a chronic lack of data about energy use and demand, particularly for the urban poor living in rapidly urbanizing areas. Ongoing challenges include improving survey designs to allow data disaggregation and combine quantitative data with in-depth analyses from qualitative studies. Third, in urban areas, different types of actions may be effective to address context-specific constraints. The question is: “What is the match between government policies for energy access and the needs of the urban poor?” Specifically, to what extent do existing systems of delivery suit people’s needs? Do planning systems address noticeable deficiencies in service delivery? These questions invite a reconsideration of resource distribution and institutional participation in energy planning, as well as people’s representation in decision-making processes.

The research questions and policy recommendations outlined here emphasize models of energy delivery that recognize users’ needs in context. These questions highlight the importance of socially inclusive action and applied interdisciplinary research to achieve broader transformations towards universal energy access in urban areas.

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This paper was funded by a grant from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council called ‘Mapping Urban Energy Landscapes’ (Grant reference: ES/K001361/1).

Author information


  1. Interdisciplinary Centre of the Social Sciences, The University of Sheffield, 219 Portobello, S1D4P, Sheffield, UK

    • Vanesa Castán Broto
  2. Practical Action, The Schumacher Centre, Bourton on Dunsmore, Rugby, CV23 9QZ, UK

    • Lucy Stevens
  3. Technical University of Denmark (DTU) and UNEP DTU Partnership, Anker Engelunds Vej 1 Bygning 101A, 2800 Kongens, Lyngby, Denmark

    • Emmanuel Ackom
  4. Institute of Sustainable Resources, University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT, UK

    • Julia Tomei
  5. UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT, UK

    • Priti Parikh
    •  & Iwona Bisaga
  6. Low Carbon Energy for Development Network, Loughborough University, Loughborough, UK

    • Long Seng To
  7. Environment Department, University of York, Heslington, YO10 5NG, York, UK

    • Joshua Kirshner
  8. Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy, University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT, UK

    • Yacob Mulugetta


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V.C.B. conceived the study and wrote the manuscript. L.S., E.A., J.T., P.P., I.B., L.S.T., J.K. and Y.M. contributed data and insights, discussed the argument, and edited the manuscript.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Vanesa Castán Broto.

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