Improving people’s access to sustainable energy

October 2012

One in five people around the world – 1.3 billion people – lack electricity to light their homes or run their businesses, while wealthy countries consume vast amounts of electricity every day. IIED’s energy team works to promote access to sustainable energy for the poorest communities and a more equitable consumption of energy resources. Energy access is an area of great inequity. Access to sustainable modern energy services underpins health, education and livelihoods and increases resilience to climate change – yet millions of people have no access to electricity and use dangerous and unhealthy fuels for lighting and cooking.

A girl studies under the light of a rechargeable solar lamp. Without the lamp she couldn’t study at night as her home in Natore, Bangladesh has no access to electricity. Photo: G.M.B. Akash/PANOS

1.3 billion people — 20% of the world's population — have no electricity, and 2.7 billion people do not have clean and safe access to energy for cooking, leading them to breathe in toxic smoke created when burning charcoal, wood, coal or animal waste to cook their food.

IIED researches the potential of initiatives to improve people’s access to sustainable energy to promote socio-economic development and reduce poverty. Adapting initiatives to specific social, cultural and political contexts, learning from successful experiences and scaling up successful pilot projects are all key challenges facing access to energy projects. In-depth case-study analysis of projects and country contexts allows us to explore how to overcome these challenges.

Our approach is to build an ‘evidence base’ for advocacy work with government, business and civil society. Developing this kind of evidence also facilitates advocacy in the policy arena and catalyses change in policy and practice. By building dialogue and problem-solving capacities among stakeholders and promoting good practice – and learning from failure – we seek to stimulate the replication and ‘scaling up’ of effective technologies and approaches.

We commission research in many parts of the globe, including Africa, Asia and Latin America. Some of our recent access to energy research includes:

We collaborate with a number of partners on furthering our understanding:
  • HEDON shares information on household energy solutions in developing countries, and coordinates the DELiVER (Decentralised Energy for Livelihoods, Environment and Resilience network, a collection of UK-based organisations focused on delivery models for overcoming the barriers to cleaner, affordable and more convenient energy access in developing countries.
  • IIED is collaborating on a book with Practical Action on energy delivery models
  • We are building relationships with ground-partners to build in more rigorous monitoring of how particular energy service projects work (or fail) in differing contexts and how they can scale. This helps in building a broader evidence base to enrich our energy delivery models framework. Examples of these partnerships include the SUNGAS project in Nigeria and CHOICES in South Africa.

Read ODI / Chronic Poverty Advisory Network's new report on how access to energy can assist with policies for the chronically poor. Energy for all: harnessing the power of energy access for chronic poverty reduction

This project was led by Emma Wilson.


Access to energy in Nigeria

A closer look at the large flare from the Exxon refinery. Burns very bright at night and can be seen for miles. Credit: Kristian Dela Cour

Nigeria has vast oil and gas reserves and abundant renewable energy potential. Yet the country’s energy crisis undermines its ability to reduce poverty and support socio-economic development. We work with ‘champions’ of sustainable energy who are carrying out projects to secure access to energy for poor communities within the country and analyse the impacts of this work. IIED’s publication explores how international oil and gas companies can contribute to tackling energy poverty in regions where they operate by developing initiatives with governments, donors and civil society.

Our work on the SUNGAS project was carried out in collaboration with the Niger Delta Wetlands Centre (NDWC),the Living Earth Foundation, the New Nigeria Foundation (NNF), ICEED (International Centre for Energy, Environment and Development), and the Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN).

The SUNGAS project site has been archived. Please see Sustainable utilisation of Nigeria’s gas and renewable energy resources - project summary for more information.


Solar lanterns in Niger Delta communities. Experiences in building a sustainable distribution model, Stakeholder Democracy Network (2016)

CMAP solar case study, Stakeholder Democracy Network (2016)

Solar lanterns toolkits. Rights and practicalities guide, Stakeholder Democracy Network (2016)

Staying power. Can communities sustain solar-powered water projects in the Niger Delta?, Miriam Isoun (2014)

Renewable Energy Potential in Nigeria. Low-carbon approaches to tackling Nigeria's energy poverty, Chris Newsom (2012)

Can renewable energy turn Nigeria's lights on?, Chris Newsom (2012)

Low-carbon energy development in Nigeria. Challenges and opportunities, Ewah Otu Eleri, Precious Onuvae, Okechukwu Ugwu (2012)

Can the low-carbon development agenda increase energy access for the poor in Nigeria?, Ewah Otu Eleri, Precious Onuvae, Okechukwu Ugwu

Energy use and usage perceptions in the Niger Delta, Olumide Oyebamiji and Rita Kigbara (2011), Stakeholder Democracry Network

Overcoming Nigeria’s Energy Crisis: Towards effective utilisation of associated gas and renewable energy resources in the Niger Delta, Olise, M. and T. Nria-Dappa (2009), Social Action: Port Harcourt

Access to Sustainable Energy: what role for international oil and gas companies?, Focus on Nigeria, IIED. Shaad, B. and E. Wilson (2009)

Sustainable utilisation of Nigeria’s gas and renewable energy resources, Emma Wilson (2008), Project summary

Biomass energy

Helida Ouka (left) and Eunice Omondi (right) show off the 'Uhai stove'

Many poor countries have vast renewable energy resources that remain untapped, or are used unsustainably. Developing nations have an untapped resource that could enable them to fight poverty, create jobs, gain energy independence and help to both limit and adapt to climate change. An IIED report urges developing nations to take advantage of their dependence on biomass fuels — such as wood and charcoal — and move towards green economies in which the poor benefit from producing sustainable, clean energy.

IIED has carried out research on how to optimise the contribution of woody biomass to renewable energy provision and legitimate income generation, and the pros and cons of biomass. An IIED briefing discusses the potential social impacts of biomass plantations in developing countries and calls for greater public scrutiny and debate about the issue.

We ask some hard questions about biomass investments and this blog and this briefing warns that rising demand for renewable energy sources could drive land grabs.


Oil palm fruits. The oil extracted from the fruits is used for cooking oil and also for biodiesel. Interest in biofuels, such as palm oil, is increasing, but the expansion of biofuel plantations could have a negative impact on biodiversity and the environment.

Africa has recently seen a rapid expansion of biofuel investments. Major agricultural investment in biofuel in, for example, Ghana and Liberia, raises concerns about land-use conflict and food security. IIED is exploring the impacts of the biofuels boom on land access and how different types of business models can provide benefits for smallholders. Very little is known about the exact terms of land deals acquired by agribusiness and government agencies, and a report discusses the contractual issues based on 12 land deals from different parts of Africa.

Our research isn’t just restricted to Africa. A report on the oil palm sector in East Malaysia documents lessons learned through case studies of different business models.

What is the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative?

The UN’s Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative, launched in 2012, aims to improve the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable people by ensuring universal access to modern energy services, increasing the share of renewable energy sources around the world, and improving energy efficiency.

The goals are laudable, but can the initiative make a difference? IIED has carried out some research to make some suggestions on how the UN initiative could best achieve these aims.


Can cooking solutions for refugees better serve gender dynamics? Kevin Johnstone, Nipunika Perera (2020), IIED Briefing

Accelerating energy access with aggregation, Kevin Johnstone, Ben Garside (2019), Briefing, 4 pages

Remote but productive: Practical lessons from productive uses of energy in Tanzania, Kevin Johnstone, Kavita Rai, Frederick Mushi (2019), Discussion paper

Energy equity: will the UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative make a difference, IIED Energy Forum, Emma Wilson, Ben Garside (2012), IIED Briefing

Pushing for better power in Tanzania, Ben Garside (2016), Reflect and act


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