Defining Energy Poverty: Equivocal Perspectives

Defining Energy Poverty: Equivocal Perspectives

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Gargi Adhikari

One of the main conundrums facing energy poverty has been around the perspectives through which it must be defined. There have been attempts to approach the issue from both an objective as well as subjective viewpoints. On the other hand, efforts have been made to access the concept the top-down, traditional way, drawing from a state security-based perspective. More recent academic perspective has been to view energy security itself from the view of the stakeholders at the local level, whereby one is to enquire about the location of the concept, that is, who is energy security for. Essentially thus, it cannot be denied that the issue has come to be of utmost importance, given the primacy given to millennium development goals, subsequently giving way to the sustainable development goals. Thus, neither energy security as a concept, nor energy poverty as an issue can be viewed in isolation from international relations and various theories governing its academic examination.


Tentatively energy poverty broadly means access to clean energy needed in households for the purpose of cooking, heating, powering appliances (Behrens et al 2012). On the other hand, there is no universally accepted way in which to define what exactly is meant by the term ‘energy access’. It is reflected on the basis of its understanding with respect to household’s and individual’s access to energy sources, taking into consideration the reliability of the source, the affordability, the quality and adequacy of the fuel (Behrens et al 2012). Then again, there is no clear understanding as to what is the benchmark to be the minimum need and requirement of a particular household to define and understand energy poverty. Studies would enumerate that energy poverty, in absolute terms and relative terms, would probably mean very different things. Thus, what is energy poverty for the developed world might not be the same for the developing nations. There is thus a general ambiguity around the term leading to a lack of awareness among the international community over the same.


What the sustainable development goals have drawn our eyes to, is the perspective that energy services must be viewed as one of the prime cogs not only towards the economic development of individuals and communities, but also, contribute essentially towards the social development of these individuals and communities. In that token, energy services bequeath human security on a daily basis. Energy poverty today affects about a third of humanity which has a subsequent impact on health, education, productivity, income, gender equality and the environment. Majority of people lack access to clean and sustainable energy, belong to rural areas in the developing world, e.g. in Sub Saharan Africa or Asia. What is in contrast to this phenomena is the fact that the population in these areas faces rapid industrialization, and economic development, which catapults its demand for energy. Thus in all practicality what befalls these regions, is a stark gap in access to energy for the citizens. While analyzing the relationship between energy and economic development, the distinction has been elaborated by scholars to be at four levels, namely, basing on survival, the basic quality of life, amenities and internal collaboration (Pereira et al 2010).


Again, energy poverty can be considered to be multidimensional. Long term understanding of alleviating energy poverty would mean an uninterrupted supply of energy to bolster economic and social growth of a country. Energy can be seen both as an end in itself and means and to achieve those ends. On the other hand, while looking at the term in the short term perspective, it would mean a lack of access to modern energy services. It would thus come to be closely associated with ‘poverty’ denoting deprivation of basic human needs.


This is where the work of Rosie Day, Gordon Walker, and Neil Simcock become important. They look at energy perspective through the prism of Amartya Sen’s and later Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities framework. They try to build a definition of energy poverty based on the capability approach, so as to ‘conceptualize and monitor the relationship between energy and wellbeing in different parts of the world, particularly between more developed and less developed regions’ (Day et al, 2016). This viewpoint looks at energy poverty at the levels of both the developed and developing countries and essentially challenges the prevalent understanding that with reference to developed countries energy poverty means to sustain levels of energy consumption. Their study finds that the above perspective conflicts with the ‘global need for a reduction in energy use’. The terms to reduce global energy consumption, on the other hand, weigh heavily on the developing countries which characterize the rapid rise of energy demand in tandem with their growing economies. Thus energy poverty must be theorized, on equitable terms, for both the developed as well as the developing regions of the world.


Further, in popular discourse in earlier research energy poverty has been essentially seen as something to do with a household’s ability to pay for heating in the developed countries, necessarily tied to thermal comfort. There is little recognition that the energy consumption pattern might vary from household to household. The fact that fuel poverty might have a greater impact in the day to day lives of individuals has been less recognized if not completely ignored (Day et al, 2016). The understanding of fuel poverty in the developing regions, on the other hand, is completely different being tied to lack of access to clean energy, to begin with affecting the ‘well-being and quality of life’(Day et al, 2016).


The consumption of per capita of electricity has a correlation with well-being of the subjects making the countries with less per capita consumption of electric energy rank low in the human development index and those with better per capita consumption fare better in the said index (Pereira et al 2010). This is also indicative of the fact that the absence of pathways to electricity aggravates not only a country’s energy poverty but also its overall wellbeing. Thus there must be a framework to understand what would be the fundamental threshold of minimum per capita energy consumption of energy in a household, or by an individual, that ensures alleviation of the subject beyond the energy poverty level. That is where the research in this study would like to make headways into so as to get a clearer picture of the elemental spaces which public policy initiatives of the government must focus towards. There is another aspect of rarely studied understanding of energy poverty which correlates with social cohesion. The developing countries have a very particular character when it comes to its societies, which are fractionated in the line of caste, class and ethnicity.


It would be interesting for future research to penetrate these nuances in the understanding of the concept of energy security. How much can the subjectivity of the stakeholders be considered to ‘define’ the concept, remains a perplexing dilemma. Further, considering the pool of experiences of individual countries, which form the basis of studies of the concept, can a standardization of the same be achieved in a fast-changing geopolitical consideration of a world. In the end, can we at least agree on the premise that the concept of energy poverty ends up asking more questions than answering any, currently, at least?

Gargi Adhikari is a doctoral scholar at the Energy Studies Programme, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.