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Beyond access: 1.18 billion in energy poverty despite rising electricity access

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Beyond access: 1.18 billion in energy poverty despite rising electricity access

Since 2000, access to electricity has increased dramatically across the globe, jumping from 75% of the global population to 90% by 2020. But having access means little when the power is not working, is unreliable, or is too costly to use. For too many around the world, newly gained connections to electricity services have not resulted in meaningful benefits to their daily lives. In a newly released paper, we report that at least 1.18 billion are energy poor and unable to use electricity, a total that is 60% higher than the 733 million people who lack any electricity connection at all in 2020, according to official data.

These 1.18 billion live in areas so dark that they provide no statistical evidence of electricity usage from space
. Most do not have access to electrical connections. But our research also reveals that there are 447 million who do not use electricity, despite being electrified according to official statistical records. This could indicate data quality or coverage issues, but it also implies a lack of electricity service provision, whether due to frequent power outages, equipment malfunctions, or gaps in the distribution network. Some connected consumers are also choosing to not use electricity, perhaps because they do not have access to services or appliances to make it worthwhile, or because they cannot afford to pay their electricity bills. The barriers to productive electricity usage remain high for many across the developing world.

Energy poverty is a lack of adequate, reliable, and affordable energy for lighting, cooking, heating, and other daily activities necessary for welfare and economic development. Without consistent access to reliable and affordable energy, even those in electrified areas miss out on the many benefits of electricity. The consequences of energy poverty can be severe, including serious harms to physical health and mental well-being, social exclusion, stigmatization, and the impairment of social, political, and economic opportunities.

Leveraging recent advances in satellite image analysis, we provide the first computational classifications of energy poverty across the developing world, combining high-resolution nighttime and daytime satellite imagery to evaluate light output signatures across up to 3,000 nights over all human settlements in the developing world. 


Interactive map: Likelihood a settlement is lit (HREA)


These new estimates rely on large-scale analysis of the complete historical record of VIIRS-DNB nighttime satellite imagery (available through the World Bank’s Light Every Night dataset, described here and UNDP’s Data Futures Exchange described here), linked with recent data on the location of all human-built structures on the planet.

These computational methods leverage nightly images to estimate power usage over individual settlements, controlling for local and systemic sources of noise. By relying on nightly estimates, we exploit important variation in temporal signals that are smoothed over in monthly and annual composites. The nightly comparisons allow for direct accounting of variations in surface reflectance due to differences in land cover albedo, lunar illumination cycles, atmospheric conditions, and other unmeasured differences. Statistical aggregation of these nightly parameters over time yields estimates of electricity usage that increase in reliability and robustness over longer periods. 


The data reveal some stark patterns. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, most of the variation in energy poverty rates is explained by within-country differences in population density, remoteness, and land terrain characteristics, not between-country variation in factors such as country wealth or power-generating capacity. One implication is that many pockets of energy poverty lie right next to areas where electrical networks are already established, suggesting that there are many local opportunities to reduce energy poverty, even without waiting for large-scale infrastructure projects to be realized. 

To accelerate efforts to reduce energy poverty across the world, we are releasing settlement-level data on estimated electricity access and usage for 115 countries from 2013-2020. Energy poor settlements lie in areas that are so consistently dim at night that they are statistically indistinguishable from the background light levels in similar unpopulated areas. The data are part of the High Resolution Electricity Access (HREA) project, a partnership to track settlement-level electricity availability between the University of Michigan, World Bank, United Nations Development Programme, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This new gridded data product of energy use has the potential to accelerate research on the causes and correlates of energy poverty, as well as on the impacts of energy poverty on welfare and development at the local and global scales. Digital tools on sustainable energy are also key to accelerate innovation in electricity planning and assessment efforts, and increase the value of local and disaggregated data collection. By linking these high-resolution energy poverty maps with other geospatial data of socioeconomic indicators, more integrated approaches can be pursued to address the just energy transition as a priority for fundamental economic development.

Reaching the SDG7 target of affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030 depends more than ever on candid, consistent, and timely insights into where and why communities lack access to energy. Amidst the substantial progress we have made in improving electricity access rates, truly effective access will require that energy is adequately, reliably, and affordably available for all. 

This blog has also been published by UNDP's Data Blog on June 14, 2024.

For data access and details, visit:

For methods and analysis, see the newly published paper: Brian Min, Zachary P. O'Keeffe, Babatunde Abidoye, Kwawu Mensan Gaba, Trevor Monroe, Benjamin P. Stewart, Kim Baugh, Bruno Sánchez-Andrade Nuño, “Lost in the Dark: A Survey of Energy Poverty from Space,” Joule (2024),

Brian Min

Associate Professor of Political Science and Research Associate Professor at the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan

Zachary O'Keeffe

Senior Researcher, University of Michigan

Babatunde Abidoye

Global Policy Advisor for the SDG Integration Team, Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, UNDP

Kwawu Mensan Gaba

Practice Manager, Energy & Extractives Global Practice, World Bank

Trevor Monroe

Program Manager with the Analytics and Tools unit. Development Economics Data Group at the World Bank

Benjamin Stewart

Geographer, Geospatial Operational Support Team, World Bank

Kim Baugh

Associate Scientist, University of Colorado / NOAA

Riad Meddeb

Director, Energy Hub, UNDP

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