How Long Can You Live with This Kind of “Modern” Energy?

November 14, 2013

Lant Pritchett lambasts the donor focus on eliminating extreme poverty because getting the income of poor people to the $1.25/day threshold is a pathetic definition of success.  A decade ago Lant had proposed $15/day as more sensible minimum for human wellbeing. Today, he worries that setting our sights too low prevents us from meeting the real goal of development—to build modern, prosperous societies.

Might this syndrome of low expectations apply to energy poverty as well? The release of the International Energy Agency’s 2013 World Energy Outlook this week got us thinking about how the global community is setting energy access targets. According to the IEA, “modern energy access” is defined at 500 kWh/year for an urban household of five people.  That’s only 100 kWh per person for an entire year. For rural households, the IEA threshold is half as much. Roger Pielke and Morgan Bazilian have a terrific essay in the National Academy of Sciences’ Issues in Science and Technology that points out how absurdly far these are from being meaningful targets.

To illustrate the disparity of consumption, we calculated how long it would take an average American to use up 100kWh.  The answer:  66 hours

Or, put another way, if Americans had this kind of “modern” energy access, they would have to live 362 days each year with no lights, no TV, no computers, no internet, no fridge. Here’s how long others, including the six countries in President Obama’s Power Africa initiative, would last with 100kWh:

Days to use 100 kWh

United States  3
Euro zone  5
South Africa  8
Tunisia  28
Ghana  106
Kenya  235
Nigeria  245
Tanzania  397
Liberia*  464
Ethiopia  702


Source: World Bank WDI, 2011, *US EIA 2010


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.