The first objective of the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All initiative is to provide universal access to modern energy services by 2030. No region is closer to reaching that goal than Latin America and the Caribbean, which is why the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which runs the Sustainable Energy for All Americas initiative, has thrown its support behind achieving universal access for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Source: IADB

A solar PV project in rural Ecuador. Source: Paola Méndez/IDB

On June 5, 2014 at the SE4All Forum in New York, IDB President Luis Alberto Moreno announced that, “The IDB will give support to member countries that request it to make National Plans for Universal Access to Modern Energy.”

The Second Annual United Nations Sustainable Energy for All Forum will be held on May 17-21, 2015, and as it approaches, the question of how to support countries in their efforts to achieve universal electricity access becomes central. In the case of Latin America and the Caribbean, several countries are within a few thousand homes of achieving this energy milestone.

With planning and investment, the region can achieve the SE4All goal of providing universal access to electricity. Although there is a need for greater coordination in the region, there are many promising indicators that demonstrate the potential for achieving such an essential service.

  1. By 2013, Latin America and the Caribbean had achieved 96% electricity access while two countries, Barbados & Bahamas, have basically reached 100%.
  2. Three countries in the region are only a few thousand homes away from universal energy access: in Uruguay 6,400 homes lack access, in Costa Rica 7,300, and in Trinidad & Tobago 11,900. By closing these gaps, the region would have several early success stories to provide examples for other countries in the region.
  3. There is a close relationship between increased quality of life and access to modern energy services. For example, access to electricity also provides other transformational services like lighting for schools and health clinics and pumps for water and sanitation. The United Nations SE4All initiative is highlighting quality of life issues by focusing on the relationship between energy and women’s health.
  4. Many families in the region rely heavily on biomass for cooking, which poses health risks to those who spend the most time at home – women and children. By making access to electricity universal, citizens will have more choices for cooking cleaner and more securely.
Nino y Gallina Ecuador Mendez (1)

A young beneficiary of a rural electrification project in Ecuador. Source: Paola Méndez/IDB

Investing in universal access also means thinking about sustainability and making sure investments and new projects plan for long-term maintenance and upkeep. If electricity access is provided initially, but later becomes intermittent or unreliable, then the gains made in terms of access will backslide. Javier Castillo Antezana, a rural electricity expert at the IDB, has created a Sustainable Access Calculator to assess the sustainability of electricity projects, and his model takes into account such factors.

The truth is that achieving 100% electricity access will require long-term planning, a huge amount of investment and ad-hoc business models (principally for the off-grid systems), including Operational and Maintenance issues (O&M), and adequate tariffs, because, without taking care about the sustainability of the service, universal access could be achieved for a short period of time and then promptly lost again.

Writer: Alice Driver is in charge of communications for the Energy Division at the IDB and she works with the Sustainable Energy for All Americas initiative. In 2013 she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México where she worked with the Centro de Investigaciones sobre América del Norte.