On a typical day, my alarm wakes me at 7 a.m., I get up and get my yoghurt out of the fridge, put on the coffee machine and sit down to watch the morning news. I take a hot shower, brush my teeth and get dressed. So only within the first 30 minutes of my day, I have already depended on a variety of energy services to get ready for work. And this is just the start of a very long day. Energy is a crucial input to satisfying most of our (more or less) basic needs and to lead a comfortable life – so essential indeed that we often forget about it.

It is understandable then, that the importance of energy for social and economic development is widely recognized today. In fact, providing access to energy for all is today considered an important social, economic and political priority by a large variety of public, private and civil society actors. Developing countries around the world face two major challenges in this regard. On the one hand, traditional energy sources such as fuelwood or agricultural residues are widely used and produced in an inefficient manner, which has significant consequences for the environment and people’s health. On the other hand, access to modern energy sources, such as electricity, petroleum and natural or liquefied gas, is very unevenly distributed within and across countries, which negatively affects people’s quality of life and equity in general (Barnes & Floor, 1996).


Both of above challenges are relevant also in Peru, where my thesis research led me this past summer. Despite being an upper-middle income country and one of the fastest growing and most stable economies in Latin America (IMF, 2013), Peru is still marked by significant inequality between regions as well as between rural and urban areas – also in terms of energy access. While the government is continuously putting efforts in extending electricity grids and improved cooking stoves to remoter areas, many people still do not have access to reliable and clean energy technologies to satisfy their diverse range of energy needs in an affordable and non-harmful way.


At the same time, people who do indeed have access to the electricity grid (which seems to be commonly deemed as the most versatile and desirable solution among energy access practitioners) this does not necessarily mean that this electricity connection can actually be used in just any way. On the one hand, many households cannot afford the necessary appliances like different electronic devices, and let alone the electricity consumption that would arise from using them. On the other hand, power supply (especially in remote rural areas) often lacks the reliability that we take for granted.

But what does that actually mean? The way that I came to see during my time in Peru is that even though many families may have physical access to electrical power, they still do not necessarily have the facilities to take a hot (or even remotely warm) shower in the evening despite temperatures often dropping to only a few degrees Celsius in the Andean region. It also means that families would sometimes still cook with open fire, causing severe respiratory diseases due to indoor air pollution. It means that a vast majority of people would still spend too large of a share of their time and income on obtaining energy sources to fulfill their needs. But most importantly, it means that the energy access agenda is all too often oversimplified to the notion of physical numbers regarding electricity connections, rather than taking into account more complex scenarios and the context-specific energy portfolio that a household would need and want to adopt to lead a decent life.

In order to achieve a true impact, therefore, an energy delivery model [1] has to take into account the cultural aspect of energy technology choice as well as the very individual local socio-cultural context. Without doing so, any efforts in increasing access to energy for people around the world will be driven by mere numbers of physical infrastructure rather than deeper developmental considerations and actual improvements in people's lives. And this, as I see it, would be a waste of precious funds, wouldn't it?

Chuquibamba, Condesuyos, Peru | © Melanie Herrmann

[1] "The combination of the technology, finance, management activities, policy support, legal arrangements and relationship types required to supply energy to a group of people or end users“ (Bellanca & Garside, 2013: p. 9).