Blackout: 1 Billion Live Without Electric Light

Nearly one-fifth of the globe can't turn on the lights

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Peter DiCampo

About 1.3 billion people around the world lack access to electricity.

What did you do when the sun went down? If you’re reading this, chances are you switched on a light. But for the 1.3 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity, darkness is a reality. There is no electric light for children to do their homework by, no power to run refrigerators that keep perishables or needed medicine cold, no power for cooking stoves or microwaves. What light they have mostly comes from the same sources that humans have relied on forever–firewood, charcoal or dung–and the resulting smoke turns into indoor pollution that contributes to more than 3.5 million deaths a year. “For us, life does not stop after dark,” says Michael Elliott, president and CEO of the development nonprofit ONE. “For 550 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and many more than that around the rest of the world, it does.”

That lack of electricity is called energy poverty, and it’s a development challenge that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. It’s easy to see why. Extreme poverty, global hunger, HIV/AIDS and malaria are all immediate threats to human life. Not having somewhere to plug in a cell phone, by contrast, might seem like an inconvenience at worst. But energy poverty is connected to a host of deeper ills: 90% of the children in sub-Saharan Africa go to primary schools that lack electricity, which means no fans or air conditioners in the equatorial heat, no computers, no lights for evening classes. Economic growth is stunted as a result–60% of African businesses cite access to reliable power as a binding constraint on their operations. Energy poverty is even a political issue. In Pakistan, which has just half the electrical-generation capacity of the state of Virginia, frustration over an antiquated grid helped get President Asif Ali Zardari kicked out of office this year.

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The good news is that the issue is slowly receiving more notice. This summer, President Barack Obama announced his Power Africa initiative, which promises more than $7 billion over the next five years to bring electricity access to 20 million new households in countries like Ethiopia and Ghana. Development groups like ONE have begun making energy poverty a priority, weaving it into long-standing health and economic programs. “A light where currently there is darkness. The energy needed to lift people out of poverty,” Obama told South African students in June. “That’s what opportunity looks like.”

The Price of Progress
But the challenge is enormous. While some 1.7 billion people have acquired access to electricity globally since 1990, the rate of electrification has been slower than the rate of population growth in the most energy-poor countries. Just to get all of sub-Saharan Africa–a region that generates about as much electricity as Spain–up to levels that comparatively well-off South Africa enjoys would require 330 gigawatts of new capacity. (Power Africa should account for about 10 gigawatts.) The World Bank estimates that it would take $1 trillion a year in global investment to eliminate energy poverty by the year 2030–more than twice what is being spent now. And even that level of investment would guarantee the poorest of the poor only enough electricity to run a floor fan, a mobile phone and two compact fluorescent lights for five hours a day.

The reality is that banishing energy poverty won’t be easy or cheap, and it may come with an environmental cost. Much of Africa can and will be supplied with renewable energy sources–especially rural areas beyond the reach of any grid, where solar fits perfectly. But the fastest population growth is happening in the developing world’s exploding urban areas, which will eventually need the same reliable, grid-delivered electricity that developed cities enjoy. Some of that electricity will be generated by fossil fuels, including carbon-heavy coal. The result may well be an increase in greenhouse gases, but given that the average Ethiopian emits less than 1% of the carbon that the average American does, Africans should hardly feel climate guilt. For those who live in darkness, electricity by nearly any means will be worth the price.

MOREA Bump on the Road to Green

37 comments
AnumakondaJagadeesh
AnumakondaJagadeesh

Excellent post. Yes. Energy is the prime mover of Economy. " No power is costylier than no Power" - Dr.H.J.Bhabha. Developing countries can go in for Decentralised Renewable Energy .

Dr.A.Jagadeesh  Nellore(AP),India

rdetchon
rdetchon

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, joined by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, is leading a global initiative called Sustainable Energy for All, with a goal of ensuring universal access to modern energy services by 2030.  More at http://www.sustainableenergyforall.org/. See also the Energy Access Practitioners Network, with nearly 1500 members operating in more than 180 countries: http://www.energyaccess.org/.  Or see how Linkin Park is calling attention to the issue at http://powertheworld.org/splash/.

rdetchon
rdetchon

I thought Time had fact checkers.  The $1 trillion World Bank figure is over 20 years - $48 billion per year.  This error does a gross disservice to the challenge and the opportunity.  Poor people already spend almost that much on dirty fuels like kerosene and charcoal.  Providing electricity to all is a readily achievable business opportunity, and entrepreneurs are using modern renewable technology to do it.

20Mike13
20Mike13

So if they have little money who pays the electric bill.

Wanda012
Wanda012

@Corriereit @TIME sulle spalle degli" inetti" italiani,la disperazione di chi fugge la guerra.E' giusto signora Merkel?

WarrenPugh
WarrenPugh

This, of course, is not unique to Asia and or Africa though the latter has the most tragic existence on the planet. Tanzania cannot even decide if a railroad is good for them.  Then, too, there are those in the U.S. who should not have children. So we have a shortage of power in third world counties, and a glut in one and two . . or is that a waste?

Do you suppose that the lighting of the whole planet might also fatten it up? Some real oddities in all of this speculation. Hey, California wants to drain the Columbia River . . . so I'm with the chap that too a swing at population growth. We don't need it.

KennBeal
KennBeal

Once they have energy they create a big military, build bombs, and drop them on Syria

nodecomms
nodecomms

@time @timebusiness Many people in remote parts of the developing world don't understand why they should switch from harmful fuel lights to clean energy like solar because it often looks more expensive than say kerosene. The World Bank estimates that living in a home reliant for evening light on kerosene and other fuels, like candles and wood, is equal to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Imagine what a billion homes are doing to people’s lungs and to the earth’s environment. The effects of using kerosene: traditional fuels can cause death, mostly from cardio-pulmonary disease; 50% f severe burn victims in some developing countries are victims of overturned kerosene lamps; kerosene lamps give off 190 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year - that’s equal to operating 30 million vehicles. One man, Firdaus Kharas, is working to fix this by partnering with locals to educate people in remote areas about why they should change to clean solar lights. See http://bit.ly/17maH25 for more information. 

cheems_
cheems_

@sharafqaisar Miserable Indeed, & the past government being quoted as the example of energy poverty being a political reason. LOL

moineauchloe
moineauchloe

@TIME @TIMEBusiness It is bearable, but not the most desirable situation; it would be better to HAVE electricity but USE it wisely

cruzkit
cruzkit

I would state that if you cannot put food on the table-You have no business having any children. I noticed that in this story they want to pour money to solve it. What could we do with that trillion dollars? I am sure many of you could come up with an answer...

splash
splash

seems more like a population growth problem to me then energy scarcity

petersonlevi88
petersonlevi88

@20Mike13 Americans and the rest of the free world. We're already doing it now. I mean, we're already paying the ghetto rats here to breed, not ever work and terrorize the civilized population chasing good people to rural areas and then BOOM!! The city collapses. Did somebody say Detroit?

EvenSteven
EvenSteven

@20Mike13 Don't worry, Barack Obama has it covered.  This will help give you a warm and fuzzy feeling on April 15 and every time you see new reports on the national debt.

theryanbradley
theryanbradley

@gwbstr only to edit bad headlines. Twitter keeps interrupting Arthur Pym. There's cannibalism happening now!

eagle11772
eagle11772

@splash I agree !  GOOD observation.  Instead of distributing lightbulbs to the poor, they should be distributing condoms to the poor instead.  And for the record, I'm in my 50's, have had a lot of sex in my life, lived with someone loved for a long time, and by my own choice I have NEVER, produced any offspring.  The world is crowded enough as it is already.

TanmayLololAnaisPradhan
TanmayLololAnaisPradhan

@EvenSteven @20Mike13 Oh, you mean, compared to the 3 trillion from this decade's wars in Libya, Iraq, Afghan, Pakistan, Sudan, and now Syria ?

Yeah, that 7 Billion will go to American companies that will do the actual construction. So its more like a stimulus than charity.

In any case, you guys keep killing and spilling blood. That's all you know how to do anyway. Right, and then blame it on africans, iranians, libyans, syrians, or whatever other race you see fit to bomb.

gwbstr
gwbstr

@theryanbradley more importantly, I’ve been fully validated in saying anyone who thinks their data is safe from NSA is wrong.

petersonlevi88
petersonlevi88

@TanmayLololAnaisPradhan Stimulus? Just because it might be an American company doing the construction doesn't mean it'll be a stimulus for us. That company will hire the cheaper labor of Africa.

theryanbradley
theryanbradley

@gwbstr the toilet problem is far more troubling to me than the electricity problem. And maybe the security problem, although a dif category