Energy poverty is a dark killer

“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”
?Albert Camus, The Plague

Sometimes I’m reminded just how luxurious our First World problems can be: I can’t find the cell-phone charger and my iPhone battery is drained; the power went out and now the Internet is down; and yes, I burned the rice again because I walked away from my clean-burning gas stove.

While these issues may feel important to us in economically developed nations, according to the International Energy Agency, over 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity and 2.7 billion people subsist without clean cooking facilities.  Clearly, the lack of universal electrification is a dire social problem with widespread economic consequences, and unfortunately, given anemic levels of investment and foreign aid, this gap is not going to close anytime soon.  In the meantime, nearly 2 million people a year will die prematurely, because without connections to the power grid, they must cook their food and heat their homes with wood, animal dung, crop waste, coal, or other fuels that produce high levels of indoor pollutants.

Let’s put those 2 million yearly deaths into perspective: Tuberculosis kills about 1.7 million people each year, 1.6 million perish from pneumococcal diseases, 780,000  a year succumb to malaria, and in 2010, 1.8 million people died from AIDS.  The lack of household energy, which forces these forgotten millions to rely on open fires and leaky stoves, is a major risk factor for pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer, largely among women and children.  According to the World Health Organization, progress in providing access to clean-burning cooking fuels has been “negligible.”

Recently, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, formulated an initiative to make sustainable energy available for all by 2030.  The plan to achieve this includes doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.  All the right words seem to be conveyed:

Sustainable energy—energy that is accessible, cleaner and more efficient—powers opportunity.  It grows economies.  It lights up homes, schools and hospitals.  It empowers women and local communities.  And it paves a path out of poverty to greater prosperity for all.

Even with an action plan, ongoing committee meetings, and collaborative thinking about how to get the right stakeholders to the table, the concept of “sustainable energy leading to greater prosperity for all,” does not come close to framing the issue properly, in a manner that leads to immediate action that will change the lives of energy-impoverished people. The fundamental issue of electrification and clean household energy is not about empowerment, it is about survival.

Energy poverty needs to be viewed as a global health crisis, and treated in exactly the same way that other consolidated initiatives have worked to stop the spread of deadly disease.  Rapid deployment of technologies, such as natural gas-fired generation and off-grid renewable resource projects that support new power sources, delivery, and clean in-home cooking and heating solutions are the vaccine to the threats created by limited access to energy that impact human health, education, and economic opportunities in stricken countries.  Politicians, bureaucrats, and special interest groups that cause fragmentation and confusion need to compromise quickly by realizing that they are impeding serious efforts to fight this plague by holding their interests over the heads of people who can’t even turn on a light.

Images courtesy of D.light and Mera Gao Power.