Global energy services: towards a comprehensive understanding

by Stefan Bouzarovski, University of Manchester.

With 2015 being declared the International Year of Light and the Obama administration recently announcing the ‘Clean Energy Savings for All Americans Initiative’, questions around energy poverty – the inability of households to secure socially- and materially-necessitated levels of energy services in the home – remain high on global policy agendas. Possibly the greatest urgency in this context is associated with the 2 billion people without access to electricity and the more than 2.7 billion people who rely on the traditional use of biomass for cooking.

The consequences of energy poverty are manifold: from harmful indoor air pollution to reduced opportunities for education and economic development. Energy access-related issues are predominantly rural, and disproportionately concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and developing countries in Asia. It is notable that the share of people relying on biomass for cooking is higher in the latter, while lack of electricity access is primarily an issue in African countries.

However, the inability to access energy at levels and through ways that enable full participation in society of is not purely a developing-world problem. In many European countries as well as North America and Australasia, high prices and – in some instances – the lack of adequate infrastructural provision – mean that some types of energy services are an issue for low income and socially vulnerable groups, as well as people living in poor quality housing. Academic and policy debates have largely considered these problems as separate from those occurring in the global South – a dichotomy reflected in the discursive coining of ‘fuel poverty’ as distinctive to the UK, Ireland and Europe.

Recent academic research on energy poverty has started to challenge established practices. It is being increasingly emphasized that where energy or fuel poverty concepts are used, they have principally referred to heating without taking in the wider uses of energy in the home – many of which matter more in a world where social inclusion hinges upon extensive electricity use in particular. The EVALUATE project based at the University of Manchester, for example, has shown that space cooling is a major issue in a number of European countries – many of which are located in climatic zones that are not normally associated with the need for this type of energy demand. Efforts to increase internet access coverage in developing countries has often included top-down solutions in a literal and metaphorical sense but this technology cannot function without affordable and accessible electricity – which makes it a distinct energy poverty problem.

Photograph by Bablu Virinder-Singh (Sustainable Energy Africa archives)
Photograph by Bablu Virinder-Singh
(Sustainable Energy Africa archives)

A recent paper that I co-wrote with Saska Petrova for the journal Energy Research and Social Science emphasizes the need for a closer consideration of ‘energy services’ – understood as the ‘benefits that energy carriers produce for human well being’ – in energy research and policy. We argued that energy services can provide a lynchpin for developing both a global perspective on energy poverty that takes in the diverse functions associated with energy provision in the home. At the same time, energy services are hybrid entities – they represent both the technical pathways that allow for energy resources to flow to domestic appliances, and the socio-cultural expectations that underpin household energy needs. How this inherent duality functions in theory and practice is poorly understood and rarely discussed.

Geographers are uniquely placed (pun intended!) to address the gaps in knowledge and policy surrounding energy services. They are based in a discipline that has developed a wide range of conceptual tools to understand and analyse the entirety of the energy chain – from sites of extraction to practices of consumption – while encompassing the territories and landscapes that energy services necessitate and create. Moreover, geography itself is polyvalent, often combining a variety of insights from different intellectual traditions into coherent and comprehensive theoretical frameworks. The URBATRANS project will seek to utilize these advantages in developing its own conceptual framework.