The United Nations has put a significant dent in energy poverty, but not at a fast enough pace to meet its own goal of bringing electricity to the approximately 1.2 billion people still living in darkness by 2030, according to new figures released today.

The report by the World Bank found that about 200 million people gained access to energy services between 2010 and 2012, the first two years after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched a collaborative of governments, private-sector investors and multilateral development banks to end energy poverty.

That translates into a global electrification rate rise from 83 percent to 85 percent, researchers said. But about 80 percent of that development took place in urban areas—largely in India and parts of Africa—where people already lived near an existing power line.

“The report is really a global scorecard,” said Vivien Foster, practice manager in the World Bank’s energy department, who helped lead the study. “Overall, we’re seeing encouraging progress relative to recent history, but we’re still not accelerating fast enough to meet the goals we’ve set for 2030.”

The report comes as leaders meet in New York this week for an annual conference of the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) consortium. The main focus, Foster said, will be on enhancing finance mechanisms and looking for ways to spur the estimated $1.2 trillion that will be needed in annual investments.

In addition to a goal of universal energy access, the SE4ALL initiative aims to double the rate of improvement of energy efficiency and the rate of renewable energy worldwide by 2030. In both those efforts, the report found similar trends: The world is doing better than in the past, but is not going far enough or fast enough.

Researchers found the share of renewable energy consumption between 2010 and 2012 rose from 17.8 percent to 18.1 percent. Foster described that as “about half as fast as we need to go” in order to meet the U.N. goals. She noted that half of all new electricity generation in that time period was from renewables, calling it “a historic milestone.” But solar, wind and other zero-carbon energy is still not making headway in other areas, like for industrial purposes.

Rates of energy efficiency accelerated from 1.3 percent to 1.7 percent, which the report noted was an encouraging rise. Still, it noted, the world needs to see closer to a 2.6 percent rise.

Low oil, PV prices could shift current trend
Meanwhile, the numbers on energy access underscore a number of challenges ahead of leaders as they seek to bring modern electricity services to those without.

In raw numbers, 200 million people with first-time access to electricity is impressive. That’s more than the entire population of Brazil, the report notes, and it is ahead of global population growth. But a deeper dive shows these early winners in the electricity effort represent the low-hanging fruit of those somewhat easier to serve.

“Almost all the progress that’s been made was made in urban areas,” Foster said. In places where people already live close to a power line and the cost of extending the grid is lower, she said, “it is easier to address the urban electrification challenge.”

She described the focus on decentralized energy within the SE4ALL group as “growing” and “an area of a lot of excitement and innovation.”

Environmental groups have called on the World Bank to develop funds aimed exclusively at boosting off-grid solutions.

Foster noted that the report doesn’t capture key global trends that could affect outcomes in the next study. For example, the price of photovoltaic modules are continuing to fall. Declining prices likely led to an acceleration of renewable energy deployment after the window of time captured in the study. On the other hand, the plummeting price of oil over the past year might have diluted incentives for energy efficiency.

The study also did not capture greenhouse gas emissions linked to new access, and Foster said the new electrification stemmed from all sources, including coal. But she argued that previous studies have shown providing basic household energy access has a minimal impact on energy consumption and global emissions.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500