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Will informal settlements ever be electrified by utilities?

By Xavier M L Lemaire, on 19 March 2015

Khayelitsha Township, Western Cape, 2008. Photo credit: Chell Hill.

Khayelitsha Township, Western Cape, 2008. Photo Credit: Chell Hill.

The UCL Energy Institute is co-leading a research project called SAMSET Supporting African Municipalities in Sustainable Energy Transition. This project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) and the Department for International Development (DFID).

This policy-oriented research is conducted with African municipalities in Uganda, South Africa and Ghana and aims to develop a knowledge exchange framework to support their energy transition. Social sciences are mobilised to produce data and modelling for municipalities so they can determine priorities and act accordingly. International comparisons are also produced. For instance, one of the surveys conducted within this project compares the electrification approach taken in the six municipal partners of the research to see how best practices could be replicated in other African municipalities.

Informal settlements are often ignored by official institutions

Informal settlements constitute a major part of cities in the Global South. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than two thirds of the urban population live in informal settlements. In spite of evidence to the contrary, such settlements are typically considered temporary aberrations by governments and are not recognised as permanent features of the urban landscape. As a result the needs of their inhabitants tend to be ignored by urban policy-makers.

This is notably the case when it comes to the electrification of informal settlements, which are seldom included in electrification efforts. The attitude of electricity utilities and municipal electricity distributors to the inevitable flourishing of “illegal” connections in these areas is at best to ignore them, or, when the situation deteriorates too much, to engage in repressive measures, such as disconnections, harassment, fines and/or imprisonment for what is considered as electricity theft.

Some authorities still take refuge behind electricity industry norms and spatial planning schemes that are rooted in the colonial era and designed to favour the wealthy, effectively denying the poorest rights to such services.

Municipalities and utilities do not want to legitimise informal settlements by electrifying these ‘illegal’ structures. They also do not want to risk increasing a low-income customer base who are expected to be unreliable payers. Furthermore, they do not want to electrify areas where there are higher technical risks and safety concerns for which they could be held responsible.

The situation leaves few alternatives for informal settlement inhabitants: to move (where?), to remain without modern energy, or to establish electricity connections themselves. In the human endeavour to improve their living conditions, it is not surprising that the latter option prevails. Even if most inhabitants can afford to pay for their connection and have demonstrated a willingness to pay, the authorities do not electrify such areas as a rule, and thus residents are pushed into illegality in their attempts to improve their welfare.

The proliferation of illegal connections comes with numerous problems, such as greater safety and fire hazard risks linked to sub-standard connections, overload of networks, loss of revenue for utilities (so called ‘non-technical’ losses), and economic exploitation of the poorest by informal resellers of electricity, who may charge more than double the official electricity price. By denying access to electricity in informal settlements, utilities create situations where both the welfare of citizens and the effective functioning of the utility are compromised.

The attitude of municipalities and utilities to informal settlement electrification has been demonstrated to be unnecessary and far too conservative in places where informal electrification has been pursued. Where countries have adopted a more flexible, appropriate approach to this dilemma there have been significant benefits for both residents and utilities.

The innovative approach of Cape Town
After the end of apartheid, South African municipal electricity distributors and the national utility Eskom developed innovative approaches to low-income household electrification, which they extended to informal settlements over time. Cape Town municipality has been one of the pioneers in this field.

Key aspects of the approach used by the Cape Town municipal distributor are as follows:

First, it demarcates areas where electrification is materially possible from those where it is not feasible, by adopting broad criteria which include a maximum of inhabitants. While the dense configuration of many settlements can indeed restrict access by electrification vehicles and equipment, with aerial electrification most parts of a settlement can be reached. However settlements on privately-owned land are not electrified, as the law prevents municipalities from installing assets on such land. Floodplains are still categorised as unsuitable for electrification, although some experts consider that these areas can be electrified as long the network is kept out of reach of water and disconnection points enable operators to isolate specific areas when flooding occurs.

Secondly, appropriate electrification technologies are used which enable all households to be reached, such as the ‘maypole’ approach (as the name suggests, houses are connected from a central pole in a radial ‘maypole’ fashion), and external pole-mounted meters are used which communicate with in-house displays, making it easy for officials to disconnect, check for faults and identify tampering. These innovative technologies and approaches have been important enablers to informal area electrification, as they have proven themselves to be safe and cost-effective.

Thirdly, tariffs have been adapted for this context, with small connection fees which are not collected up-front but paid over an extended time, and pre-paid-meters both protecting the utility revenue as well as enabling low-income households to purchase small amounts to suit their pocket, as the poor often have a variable income.

Fourth, local communities are engaged with extensively during the electrification planning and implementation process. This engagement goes beyond a superficial survey and implies time and effort from the utility to identify concerns and interact on a regular basis with the community-chosen representatives, as well as directly with the inhabitants to be electrified.

This integrated approach to informal settlement electrification has spread access to electricity to almost all households in Cape Town, with associated welfare benefits for its citizens. Using technologies, standards and approaches imported from the developed world, as was done initially in South Africa, would have constrained such access significantly.

In conclusion, inhabitants of informal settlements have the right to get access to a reliable source of electricity. As the case of Cape Town shows, this can be achieved relatively quickly. Cost of electrification may not be the main issue and technical difficulties can be overcome. The main question is the one of social justice and good governance: not to treat inhabitants of informal settlements as sub-citizens and start to build more inclusive cities which can be done once political and organisational constraints have been systematically analysed and tackled. Otherwise, inhabitants of informal settlements will continue to grant themselves access to electricity by all means possible.

A previous version of this post has been published on UrbanAfrica.net

Dr Xavier Lemaire,
UCL Energy Institute
E-mail: x.lemaire@ucl.ac.uk

Xavier Lemaire is Senior Research Associate at the University College London – Energy Institute. He is Acting Principal Investigator of the SAMSET project. Sociologist and socio-economist, his research interests focus on clean energy policies, energy transition and energy access in the Global South.

References: 

Informal Electrification in South Africa: Experiences, Opportunities and Challenges, 2012. Sustainable Energy Africa, Cape Town

Policy guidelines for the Electrification of Un-proclaimed Areas, DoE South Africa.

SAMSET website 

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