The case for alleviating energy poverty
An innovative charity works to solve an overlooked problem in the discussion of poverty and climate change.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009 - 09:51
Imagine the entire U.S. had a day-long blackout -- no electricity whatsoever. The entire workforce would be rendered utterly useless without its computers or internet access. Hospitals would be in crisis, unable to power life-supporting equipment or refrigerate sensitive medicine. Schools would literally go dark. Society as a whole would be threatened, but think of the consequences directly in your own life. How could we cook, connect, clean or do anything else without electricity?
Now imagine there was a decade-long blackout.
When we talk about human rights and the developing world, the discussion is often limited to the obvious: clean water, health care, education. Ignored, however, is the concept of energy poverty. 1.6 billion people, or one quarter of humanity, live without electricity. Robert Freling -- the director of the Solar Energy Light Fund (SELF) -- argues that access to energy is as fundamental as access to air or water. Why? Because lack of electricity is one of the biggest factors hindering third-world nations' escape from poverty. Without it, virtually every aspect of life is negatively affected.
Health clinics can't have lighting, medical equipment or refrigeration, which is necessary for many vaccines. Schools can't have internet access or adequate lighting. Farms can't have irrigation systems, severely limiting production. Entrepreneurs can't access the global marketplace, practically guaranteeing failure. Communities can't pump clean water, and girls have to be taken out of school to collect water and firewood each day. Women can't have a safe way to cook and are forced to use dangerous open fires. Homes have to be lit with kerosene lamps, which emit hazardous smoke into the home. Industry, and thus the nation's gross national product, is wholly crippled.
Plus, in a world shaped by climate change, the absence of electricity is further pronounced. As I explained in an earlier post, global warming is shifting weather patterns, making dry areas -- like the developing world -- even drier. For those who depend directly on land, the increased droughts will be devestating. And without electricity, their ability to adapt is severely compromised: pumping from deepening wells or desalinating water is impossible. Increased disease will require more medical care, which brings us back to the whole health clinic issue. These factors, in combination with rising sea levels, causes people to move to already overcrowded cities, further straining the nation's government and resources.
Luckily, the solution to energy poverty and to global warming is one in the same: renewable energy. The main reason why the developing world is not in the grid is because there are no functioning utilities to raise capital, build plants and transmission lines, due to persistent misgovernance and civil war. So why not skip the coal plant phase all together and simply build sustainable, off-grid villages?
Such is the vision of SELF, which has been working for decentralized rural electrification for over 18 years. The innovative charity has solar energy projects spanning over 15 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America; one of my favorites is a solar-powered high school in South Africa, shown in the above picture. The projects take a "whole village" approach, meaning that an array of panels could power water pumps, irragation, health clinics, schools, household and community lighting, and micro-enterprise. And, oh the benefits! Isn't it beautiful that we can solve all the above problems by simply using solar panels? As the SELF website states, the sustainable projects lead to "enhancements in health, education, agriculture and economic growth in the developing world."
Think if we could connect every school in third-world nations to the rest of the world. It would have the potential to unleash the power we need to solve our last great problems. "Imagine -- imagine -- if we could tap into the creativity and innovative capacity of the world's poorest people..." Thomas Friedman states in his book, Hot, Flat and Crowded. "It would lead to an explosion of innovation -- from science and technology to art and literature -- the likes of which the world has never seen." After all, as The Economist once stated, "The one natural resource the world has left in infinite quantity is human ingenuity."
(If that doesn't get you excited about solar energy, I don't know what will.)