The Bartlett


The last mile in energy access

There are lessons to be learned from Colombia's approach to providing electricity for people living in off-grid areas of the country.

Graphically designed image with a black background and text reading 'energy access' in block capitals
The provision of access to modern energy services for all is a key global challenge and has been recognised in the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030. Worldwide, there are an estimated one billion people who lack access to electricity, while a further billion people have only intermittent access, meaning that supply is unreliable or limited. 

To date, Latin America has done well to address this challenge and has access rates of 95%. Nonetheless, an estimated 26 million people still lack access to electricity across the continent. Delivering electricity to this last mile in energy access is difficult, because it involves reaching people who live in isolated and often impoverished rural communities. Complicating the picture further is that electricity demand is typically very low in such ëlast mileí communities, which makes it difficult to attract private-sector investment. 

Colombia has made substantial inroads into delivering electricity to its population and in 2017 had an electrification rate of 98%. However, digging into this number a little deeper reveals that while 100% of households living in urban areas are electrified, this falls to 87% in rural areas. This means that 1.4 million people remain without access to electricity – most of whom live on the Pacific Coast, in La Guajira and the Amazon. These ‘forgotten areas’ not only lack access to electricity, but access to many other basic services such as drinking water, sanitation and health. These areas also tend to be those that were most affected by Colombia's 50-year conflict and, while peace has brought new opportunities, it has also led to new challenges, including increased human rights violations as various armed groups move into areas vacated by the FARC, and rising deforestation.

Since 2016, I have been working with local universities to investigate last-mile electrification in Colombia. Through our research we aim to understand the challenges, the solutions and the impacts of electrification for people living in off-grid areas of the country. We've shown that electrification brings multiple benefits – providing not only lighting, refrigeration and entertainment services for households, but also opportunities for income generation, such as cold storage for agricultural and fishing products. However, such opportunities are constrained by poor infrastructure, low capacity and limited resources. 

Our research has shown that the benefits of electrification cannot be assumed, particularly where programmes to provide access have a narrow focus on the  delivery of energy infrastructure alone. Rather, if electricity is to provide the multiple development benefits on offer, it should be delivered as part of wider development programmes that place community needs at the centre.

We're also interested in understanding how clean energy solutions, such as solar and wind, can meet off-grid energy needs. Most off-grid electricity in Colombia is provided by diesel-powered generators. The use of diesel is not only costly for the state (due to subsidies), but also contaminates local environments and contributes to climate change. Our research has shown that renewable energy technologies are cost-competitive with diesel, but that their roll-out is hampered by outdated regulation and the structure of energy markets. Here, Colombia has much to learn from experiences in Africa, where enabling policy environments have created opportunities for the private sector to deploy renewable off-grid energy, particularly solar. This provides exciting opportunities for knowledge sharing, with learnings from elsewhere being adapted and applied to the Colombian context. 

Reaching full electrification in Colombia is within sight. However, delivering energy access requires finding solutions that meet people’s needs without damaging local and global environments. Our research is providing vital evidence that such solutions exist and with that a means to contribute to sustainable development in Colombia.