By Bryan Walsh, Time Science, October 11, 2011
I want you to try to imagine what it's like to live without electricity. It's boring, for one thing — no television, no MP3 player, no video games. And it's lonely and disconnected as well — no computer, no Internet, no mobile phone. You can read books, of course — but at night you won't have light, other than the flicker of firewood. And about that firewood — you or someone in your family had to gather it during the day, taking you away from more productive work or schooling, and in some parts of the world, exposing you to danger. That same firewood is used to cook dinner, throwing off smoke that can turn the air inside your home far more toxic than that breathed in an industrial city. You may lack access to vaccines and modern drugs because the nearest hospital doesn't have regular power to keep the medicine refrigerated. You're desperately poor — and the lack of electricity helps to ensure that you'll stay that way.
That's life for the 1.3 billion people around the planet who lack access to the grid. It's overwhelmingly a problem of the developing world and the countryside — more than 95% of those without electricity are either in sub-Saharan Africa or developing Asia, and 84% live in rural areas. Though it hasn't gotten the attention that global problems like HIV/AIDS and malaria have received in recent years, lack of power remains a major obstacle to any progress in global development. (See photos of new ways to boost energy efficiency.)
"Lacking access to electricity affects health, well-being and income," says Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA). "It's a problem the world has to pay attention to."
Fortunately that attention is finally forthcoming. The U.N. has already declared 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, and on Oct. 10 the IEA released a special report that details the problem of energy access and outlines how a universal power grid might be financed. The need for clean cooking stoves — 2.7 billion people lack them, an offshoot of the energy-access problem — is rising up the development agenda as well. The experts' analyses about how solvable these problems are is surprisingly sunny: according to the IEA's analysis, it would be possible to achieve universal energy access for the world by 2030 with around $48 billion a year in global investment. "We very much have the capacity to make a difference in this field," says Birol, who has worked for years to call attention to electricity access. No one needs to stay in the dark.
At a time when even developed countries are feeling poor — or at least poorer than they once were — $48 billion a year sounds like a fair chunk of change, but it actually only amounts to about 3% of yearly global energy investment, which should give you a sense of just how vast the worldwide energy industry is. But right now the world is falling well short of that necessary target — perhaps $9 billion a year is currently invested in shrinking the energy gap, with much of it coming from foreign aid and other public sources that are unlikely to grow in a straitened global economy. Nearly all of that investment goes toward improving grid access in urban areas, which leaves those in rural villages out of luck. Even if investment rises to $14 billion a year, the IEA expects that 1 billion people will still be without power in 2030. "What's being done now clearly isn't enough," says Birol. (See photos of power in cities.)
And the problem will get worse rapidly thanks to rising oil prices, which could put a crimp in development. It's worth noting that when rich nations were at roughly the same economic stage as developing countries are today, oil cost an average of around $22 per barrel. Though the price has fluctuated recently, the $100-a-barrel threshold is increasingly being crossed. For developing countries that are net oil importers, those high prices can quickly eat up a national budget; oil-import bills in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, went up by $2.2 billion in 2010, more than one-third higher than the increase in official development aid. Environmentalists sometimes welcome higher energy prices as a spur to conservation and efficiency, but that's true mostly in rich countries; in developing, energy-starved ones, high prices can be economically crippling.
Beyond ensuring that there's more overall investment in closing the energy gap, there's the question of how the money should be spent. The tendency has been toward big projects — major fossil-fuel plants and electrical transmission lines. That sort of infrastructure can serve cities well, but it's not going to reach the rural villagers that are the most energy-starved — not to mention the fact that it's not the best idea to lock in carbon-heavy power sources in a warming world. That's where renewables might have a practical advantage, as well as an environmental one. Solar power can be installed quickly and cheaply far off the grid, providing enough power for light and basic services — and it's not as if sub-Saharan Africa is lacking for sunlight. With smart and green investment, the IEA believes that achieving universal energy access would increase global carbon emissions by only 0.7% by 2030 — a drop in the climate bucket. "Solar is going to play a huge role in improving energy access," says Birol. "It's one of the best ways to meet challenges off the grid."
Energy poverty is, of course, only a piece of larger economic poverty, but it's one of the best ways out of it too. If you need one more reminder of that fact — and of how radical the difference is between the world's haves and have-nots — take a look at a satellite photograph of earth at night, with large swathes of the planet radiating light and other stretches cloaked in darkness, an electric map of wealth and poverty. The very least we can do is wake up to the fact that everyone deserves a light.