New study finds more than one billion people worldwide live in energy poverty

May 28, 2024

Contact: Jon Meerdink ([email protected])

ANN ARBOR — More than a billion people around the world live without access to sustainable, reliable, and affordable electricity according to a new paper.

Lost in the Dark: A Survey of Energy Poverty from Space,” published this month in the scholarly journal Joule, used nighttime satellite imagery to survey energy usage in 115 countries throughout the developing world. According to the paper, 1.18 billion people in those countries are energy poor and do not use electricity in a way that makes a meaningful impact on their day to day lives. This includes households that may have an electrical connection at home but are unable to use it due to frequent power outages, unreliable electricity supply, or unaffordable rates. 

That’s a significantly higher estimate than the official figure of 733 million who have no access to electricity. But according to Brian Min of the Institute for Social Research’s Center for Political Studies, it comes with a firm data foundation.

While previous studies of electricity access relied on door-to-door surveys, this paper uses detailed satellite imagery to automate the detection of electricity usage over every populated area over time. 

“We exploit every night of imagery captured by these satellites over the last decade, and so we can use almost 3,000 nights of data,” said Min. “We can use all of the variation in that data to assess the likelihood that light we detect over an individual human settlement is due to the use of electricity.” 

The long survey period for the data offsets complications that can arise from noise in individual images due to clouds or  atmospheric disturbances. The computational analysis then allowed the research team to compare places with and without human settlements, making statistical inferences on the difference between the two. 

“Energy poor settlements lie in areas that are so consistently dark at night that they are statistically indistinguishable from the background light levels in similar unpopulated areas.. Then we use census data to estimate the population in each of these locations. Across all of the developing world, there are nearly 1.2 billion people living in the dark.”

In Sub-Saharan Africa, where 657 million are energy poor, most of the variation in energy poverty rates is explained by within-country differences in population density, remoteness, and land terrain characteristics, not between-country variation in factors such as country wealth or power generating capacity. One implication is that many pockets of energy poverty lie right next to areas where electrical networks are already established, suggesting that there are many local opportunities to reduce energy poverty, even without waiting for large scale infrastructure projects to be realized.   

“We want to move the conversation beyond the goal of universal access to ensure that people actually benefit from sustainable, reliable, and affordable energy.,” said Min. “That doesn’t necessarily require massive infrastructure projects. There may be easy opportunities to enhance the quality and reliability of electricity in communities where significant energy investments have already been made.”

Lost in the Dark: A Survey of Energy Poverty from Space” is available online now from Joule. Data on energy poverty, covering 115 countries from 2013-2020, are part of the High Resolution Electricity Access (HREA) project, a partnership to track settlement-level electricity availability between the University of Michigan, World Bank, United Nations Development Programme, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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