Researchers Use Night-time Satellite Images To Map Access to Electricity In Sub-Saharan Africa

A team of researchers from the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the Future Energy Program at the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM) in Italy analysed the precision with which satellite images showing night-time lights could be converted into spatially detailed maps of electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa.

The research validates a growing recognition of the potential gains of using satellite data to assess the availability of electricity across a large geographical area.

The researchers focused on sub-Saharan Africa, where a dearth of accurate data and data collation systems are impeding a more holistic approach to solving the energy deficit in the region. Sub-Saharan Africa remains the region with the largest electricity access deficit in the world, with nine out of ten people living without electricity.

Existing data on electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa provide a shallow insight into the energy situation in the region, thereby making it difficult to track progress and make plans for expanding electricity infrastructure. In essence, it’s more difficult to prioritize financial support due to limited knowledge of the situation.

In their study published in the journal Scientific Data, the researchers made a case for leveraging spatially detailed maps of electricity access to address the energy deficit in the region, with a view to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7).

“They further investigated whether remotely-sensed data on light intensity could provide a proxy for electricity access quality beyond a binary measure of access, and if it could help to identify regions that lack access to electricity, as well as hotspots where progress in terms of providing access is stalled or regressing”, according to a synopsis of the research which was released to the media.

The team’s satellite-derived dataset was able to provide an accurate prediction of not only where people have access to electricity and where they don’t, but their measure of light intensity, which could also provide an accurate proxy for the amount of residential electricity consumption in a particular area.

Commenting on the research, Giacomo Falchetta, a researcher at FEEM and lead author of the study, said: “We were able to use our derived indicators to track, within each country, what progress with electricity access has been over the last five years, and where critical hotspots of people without access or high latent electricity remain. The results revealed large inequalities in progress towards universal access to electricity, both across and within nations in the region.”

“Our dataset provides a useful complement that is easily updatable and can help assess progress with providing electricity access, as well as inequalities in electricity use at a fine sub-national scale. This could be an invaluable input to efforts aimed at meeting SDG 7,” explains Shonali Pachauri, a co-author of the study and a researcher with the IIASA Energy Program.

The dataset and research paper are available for academia, policymakers, development organisations and developers to make good use of.

Read the original synopsis of the research on IIASA website to learn more about the research and how to access the dataset.