Populations’ dependence on reliable electricity has been thrown into sharp relief by COVID-19. Image: Freetown, Sierra Leone

COVID-19 is further highlighting the relationship between reliable, adequately functioning power systems and resilience, and is likely to reveal new issues to consider in future energy system planning, operation and maintenance in developing countries.

Research will be key, and the Energy and Economic Growth (EEG) programme, funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), has responded by commissioning research into health and economic resilience and utility revenue collection models. Simon Trace, programme director, explains more.

The relationship between COVID-19 and energy in the developing world is multidimensional. Not only has the pandemic negatively affected energy sectors (by, for example, decreasing demand for power, reducing electricity payments and putting already unstable, fragile energy systems under increased pressure), but it has also further highlighted that unreliable electricity may severely compromise developing countries’ health and economic resilience.

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It’s likely the pandemic will bring many issues and challenges to light – which will need to be considered when energy systems are being planned in the future. There is a huge need for evidence, and the scope for research is wide.

EEG responded by funding additional research projects, research papers and workshops on COVID-19 and energy. There are two main research projects; the first examines whether access to a functioning power supply improves economic and health resilience in the face of a pandemic, and the second looks at the impact COVID-19 has had on utilities’ revenue collection models.

Reliable electricity and resilience

Populations’ dependence on reliable electricity has been thrown into sharp relief by COVID-19 – highlighting that it plays an indispensable role in our lives. A population’s resilience to the pandemic may, in part, be underpinned by whether its power supplies are sufficient and reliable enough to provide adequate healthcare, deliver other critical services and support economies.

Electricity is essential for healthcare facilities – it provides lighting, enables vaccines and medicines to be refrigerated, powers life-saving equipment such as ventilators, and makes procedures such as x-rays and scans possible. Not only does reliable power improve the quality of the health services provided, but it also improves citizens’ perception of the quality, encouraging more people to use the services.

Access to reliable power will also make populations more resilient by improving people’s and businesses’ ability to cope with the economic shock, both by mitigating the negative consequences and speeding up the recovery process. Electricity access helps to maintain public services, key supply chains and communication and IT services, so that parts of the economy can continue to function while social distancing and stay-at-home measures are in place. It can enable people to work at home – where feasible – protecting businesses, jobs and economies to some degree.

With access to reliable electricity, refrigerators can be powered to store food supplies, meaning people are able to adhere to lockdowns more strictly, potentially reducing their exposure to the virus. Using electricity to freeze or process otherwise perishable products helps people and businesses to reduce losses in income, livelihoods and food security.

Electricity also helps people to keep up to date with the latest COVID-19 information, advice and guidelines, stay connected with friends and family and educate their children if they cannot attend school.

Yet, while many research studies have focused on how improved access to reliable electricity impacts people’s livelihoods, few have looked at how it can increase resilience and help populations cope with large health and economic shocks.

We have therefore funded a project that investigates whether electricity access can help to improve Sierra Leone’s economic and health resilience to COVID-19. Sierra Leone recorded its first COVID-19 case in late March 2020 and has since seen a steady increase in cases. As in other countries, there are restrictions on movement, and economic activity has decreased. Just 2.5% of the rural population has access to electricity.

The research team – from Yale University in the US and Wageningen University in the Netherlands – is assessing whether people in Sierra Leone’s rural communities who have recently benefitted from the Rural Renewable Energy Project (RREP), a large-scale electrification programme, are better able to cope with COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns compared to those without access to reliable electricity.

The team is studying 54 communities benefitting from RREP and 54 comparison (non-beneficiary) communities. The sample comprises about 4,500 respondents in 108 communities and 108 community health clinics, spread across all districts.

Phone surveys are being carried out to collect data on key household and health clinic indicators over a six-month period; as COVID-19 is a fast-moving and likely pervasive crisis, the aim is to capture time trends and track respondents over an extended period and assess whether electrification allows people to return to normality sooner after the shock.

Some early findings have been reported. The data suggests that electrification increases clinic quality and thus utilisation. Importantly, 5% of respondents say they avoid visiting clinics for common diseases, but for electrified clinics, this reduces to less than 2% skipped health visits. 

The project aims to inform decision-making by providing evidence on the contribution a functioning power supply makes to resilience during a pandemic; how shortfalls in the functioning of power supplies in developing countries have exacerbated the crisis or weakened resilience; and how lessons can help determine and influence future policy and energy planning approaches in Sierra Leone and beyond. The team believes lessons can also be used to assess resilience to outbreaks of diseases in other areas (Ebola in DRC, for example) and natural disasters such as severe flooding and droughts.

Utility revenue collection

Led by the US’ Duke University, our second project aims to understand the role metering and infrastructure improvements can play in power system resilience.

In many developing countries, it is common for households and businesses to receive poor-quality electricity – they frequently face unpredictable power outages, scheduled electricity shutdowns (load shedding) and voltage fluctuations. And, when electricity is unreliable, consumers may resist paying for it – feeling justified in not paying their bills, or even not paying for their electricity at all through meter tampering or directly tapping into electricity lines.

But low bill payment and high theft perpetuates poor-quality service. If utilities don’t collect enough revenue and recover their costs, they will have less money to invest in the infrastructure maintenance, modernisation and technical upgrades that are needed to improve reliability. Utilities often become trapped in this persistent cycle of low cost recovery leading to restricted and low-quality supply.

These concerns have increased during the pandemic. In many developing countries, meter readers usually have to visit consumers, to not only read meters and record consumption, but also to deliver bills. Customers typically pay their bills at utility offices or other payment locations. However, during COVID-19, lockdowns and quarantines have restricted the movement of billions of people – affecting this revenue collection model, and therefore the delivery of electricity services.

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Some utilities have requested that customers pay bills electronically, but this is infeasible for those without internet connections, computers or smartphones. Furthermore, without utility workers regularly patrolling neighbourhoods, there is less prevention and identification of illegal connections and electricity theft.

Prior to COVID-19, some utilities implemented measures to increase cost recovery; installing modern metering systems (pre-pay or smart meters) to help mitigate the problems of low payment and theft and upgrading old infrastructure with aerial bundled cables (ABCs), which are designed to prevent illegal connections. These interventions were designed to mitigate problems in typical times. During COVID-19, they are potentially more important, with greater benefits, but there is currently no evidence on their effectiveness.

This project therefore analyses the impact of COVID-19 on electricity distribution companies and explores how the pandemic has affected the efficacy and resilience of metering systems and infrastructure upgrades in reducing loss and/or increasing cost recovery.

The research is being carried out in Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan. Prior to 2020, both countries suffered from high losses, low cost recovery, and sub-standard electricity service quality. They have also been substantially impacted by COVID-19, in terms of cases and deaths as well as lockdowns severely restricting movement.

Data is being collected via phone surveys with distribution company representatives; focus groups held with central utility representatives and staff from local utility offices; and household surveys. The team will also use data provided by electricity distribution companies and their collaborators and partners.

The research aims to provide a better understanding of the relationship between COVID-19 and electricity distribution companies’ financial viability and provision of quality electricity services in developing economies.

In addition to these projects, we have funded research papers on a number of areas where COVID-19 has impacted on the energy sector. These include:

An online workshop (and subsequent paper) investigating the impacts and coping mechanisms for COVID-19 in Malawi’s energy sector was also commissioned. An existing EEG project on electricity reliability has also been extended to monitor the impact of electricity subsidies.

Through this research, we are investigating the multidimensional relationship between COVID-19 and energy in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia – whether related to the impact that global health crises can have on power systems or the role reliable power plays in underpinning societies’ response to pandemics.

As a result of this work, we hope to propose policy lessons for future energy system planning, operation and maintenance and aims to inform decision-making that leads to reduced energy poverty and increased resilience in developing countries.

Energy and Economic Growth