For years, we have used growth in energy generation capacity also consumption as a measure of development in emerging countries. But on basis that what you measure is what you get, this suggests a development future dominated by heavy industry also urban consumption -major consumers of large quantities of electricity.
In many developing countries, requirement is more basic. With only some 31% of households connected to grid in urban environments also just 14% in rural areas, problem is not quantity of electricity but is largely one of access to any electricity at all.
At a consumer level, electricity, of itself, is not useful. What matters is ability to turn electricity into end user benefit - ability to improve lives, make products, make money and save costs also reduce environmental impact.
So how do we link use of electricity and end user benefit?
In 2000, Dr Alan Pasternak published a paper - Global Energy Futures also Human Development: A Framework for Analysis - in which he compared average per capita energy consumption with United Nations Human Development Index for a wide range of countries. His conclusion was that for developing countries at least, those with higher levels of electricity use per head had higher levels of human development.
But with advent of Internet also low power solid state devices, linkage between electricity consumption also standard of living has become a whole lot muddier.
Take for example a light bulb. Today, there are standard incandescent bulbs or low cost LED equivalents. Both give roughly same benefit, but LED bulb uses four times less power. So are we saying that a household that uses LED lighting is somehow less developed than one using older technology?
Similarly, impact of a given amount of electricity varies hugely depending on how it is used. Just as in Internet where same amount of data can deliver thousands of tweets or a fraction of a second of high-quality video, energy needed to boil water for a cup of coffee could power a small Internet tablet for 2 hours or basic lighting for a rural home for a day. Which of these is more valuable depends entirely on context. If I am a Western city dweller, a cup of coffee is more useful than adding a fractional quantity of extra light to my house. If I still read by candlelight (as many millions of people are still forced to do) it is clear that step up to LED lighting far outweighs need for convenient access to a cup of hot water.
In other words, benefit of electricity depends on context in which it is used, with those that consume least feeling greatest gain from more power. Yet these users barely feature in energy consumption statistics.
This makes for a puzzling problem. If benefit of energy is subjective also context dependent, then how do we measure an improvement? Instead of looking at absolute levels of consumption, should we not focus on change that more energy can bring about?
It's time for a customer-centric view. Let's stop talking only about quantity of electricity generated also talk instead about outcomes across a population - access to basic capabilities such as lighting, media also entertainment, Internet, access for productive purposes also access for convenience - also weigh these against cost of providing each. With such a measure, let's develop most appropriate means of delivering end requirement.
In a city, a power station also grid may be ideal way to deliver copious access to power. But does a rural farmer in Africa need to wait for grid or will a stand-alone solar home system be more effective? Also given choice, is it better to deliver more low-cost electricity in a city (with only a marginal improvement in living standards) or much smaller power systems in rural areas that, in relative terms, are able to transform living standards of individual?
In a world that is run by sound bites it is easy to see how a simple metric such as electricity capacity can be used as a clarion call to development. But it's time to go below surface also appreciate that such a measure is at best inaccurate also at worst misleading. It's time to create metrics that help us measure benefit of power also then to think of creative ways of delivering that benefit to those that need it.