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Hanley Sustainability Institute

Meeting sustainable development goals by gaining electricity access in poor countries

By Robert Brecha

Note: University of Dayton physics professor Robert Brecha is on leave serving as a European Union Marie Curie Fellow working with Climate Analytics in Germany on sustainable energy access and system transformation in Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States.

Until the fossil-fuel age started about 200 years ago, most people lived a bare existence; vulnerable to the whims of nature’s cycles. Beginning with the industrial revolution, but accelerating dramatically after World War II, the extraction and burning of fossil fuels for industry, heating, electricity and other applications helped raise people’s standard of living.

In a perpetuating loop only now slowing, increased living standards accelerated population growth from one billion at the beginning of the 19th century to two billion before World War II to the current 7.5 billion.

Access to sufficient amounts of energy was always and continues to be a prerequisite for the development of human well-being. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognize the interconnectedness of climate change, energy access and a number of development indicators. 

Understanding whether progress is made toward meeting the goals by 2030 will be easier if there are quantifiable targets where appropriate. However, not all SDG targets are quantified, leaving room for ambiguity in fulfilling, for example, the goal of ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all (SDG7).

There is a long history of published literature looking at a pattern showing broad measures of human development (e.g. the Human Development Index, or HDI) increase as energy consumption per person at the country level increases, at least up to a limit. The key point is that below a certain level, countries on average have a low level of human development. In a recently published paper I showed how specific sustainable development targets for health indicators are strongly correlated with electricity consumption levels, especially in the poorest countries.

For this analysis I looked specifically at electricity consumption, as well as at targets for health indicators in SDG3. Targets associated with SDG3, are: “By 2030, reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births,” and: “By 2030, end preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years of age, with all countries aiming to reduce neonatal mortality to at least as low as 12 per 1000 live births and under-5 mortality to at least as low as 25 per 1000 live births.”

By combining the data for electricity consumption and these health indicators, I found clear thresholds in per capita electricity consumption of a few hundred kWh per year, depending on the indicator. Those thresholds are strongly correlated with meeting of SDG 3 targets; we can summarize the relationship as follows: Below the identified thresholds, countries do not meet the SDG targets, while above the threshold there is a clear relationship between increasing consumption of electricity and improvement of SDG indicators.

This analysis was at a macro level, but similar relationships seem to hold for the electricity consumption and quantified SDG targets for education (SDG4), hunger (SDG2) and access to sanitary facilities and clean water (SDG6). The identified electricity consumption threshold of about 1 kWh per capita per day is only 5–10% that of wealthy countries, and at even 3 kWh per day per person at a country average level, there is virtually no country for which the SDG targets are not met.

Two conclusions might be drawn. Either one could adopt something like these thresholds as a quantitative indicator for meeting SDG7, and if historical patterns hold, use this access to electricity as a leveraging mechanism to help meet other targets.

After all, energy consumption is not really the goal in and of itself; what counts it the productive ends for which the electricity is used. Some examples are shown below of linkages between electricity use and SDGs. And at the very least, the presence of thresholds and historical data patterns requires an understanding of how certain SDG targets would be met in the absence of this threshold level of electricity access.

  • SDG 1 (Poverty): Modern energy (electricity) fundamental for development - Access to electricity (and other modern energy) frees up time and other resources.
  • SDG 2 (Hunger): Energy access can help reduce post-harvest losses - Food preservation improved by access to electricity.
  • SDG 3 (Health): Electricity allows storage of medicine and vaccines - Improved lighting and equipment power in clinics; Better food preservation contributes to better health outcomes.
  • SDG 4 (Education): Lighting allows more opportunity for studying at home - Electricity in schools provides better lighting and information technology access.
  • SDG 6 (Water and sanitation): Electricity can allow access to pumping for safer drinking water - Electricity access will allow for desalination to enhance scarce water resources; Power needed for water treatment.
  • “Threshold Electricity Consumption Enables Multiple Sustainable Development Goals” Robert Brecha, Sustainability 2019, 11(18), 5047; (2019)
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