Most of us living in developed countries can’t begin to imagine a life without electricity. The most basic things suddenly seem impossible. Imagine just the first hour of your day without the luxury of being able to take a hot shower and cook breakfast without first having to build a fire. Most of us can’t even imagine living without the internet, much less lightbulbs and refrigerators. The idea of life without electricity seems antiquated, conjuring up sepia-toned images of the world before the industrial revolution. But living without any connection to the energy grid is a continued and contemporary reality for a huge number of people around the globe.
Around 13 percent, or approximately 940 million of the world’s poorest people live without any electricity. In Africa alone, 600 million people live without this luxury. Lack of access to electricity can lead to significant challenges and setbacks for those living in conditions that don’t allow them to do homework or keep their businesses open after the sun goes down.
In many cases, those living without electricity are vulnerable in a number of ways. “For displaced people, these limitations come on top of a variety of other hardships, from property loss to physical violence and persecution,” the World Economic Forum reported this month. “In short, access to energy is a vital economic lifeline.”
In fact, bringing “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all by 2030” is #7 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. There are, of course, lots of reasons that this widespread issue has not yet been resolved. Bringing electricity to the global poor presents a number of considerable challenges. Many of the world’s poorest people live in remote and rural areas where connecting to the grid is especially challenging. And then there is the issue of severe disparity in investment dollars. In Africa, the energy investment gap is an incredible $50 billion per year. Related: An Oil Market Recovery Is On The Horizon
And then there is the issue of finite natural resources and increased energy consumption’s extreme negative environmental externalities. As difficult as reaching the carbon emissions goals set by the Paris climate accord seems now, imagine how much more difficult it could be once nearly a billion new people are connected to the grid. Of course, most global citizens (and especially the poorest ones) use a pittance of electricity in comparison to countries like the United States. In fact, “per capita electricity consumption varies more than 100-fold across the world.” Even so, a billion new users presents a potential for extreme environmental stress, especially if the developed world can’t bring its own energy footprint down.
Luckily, the most promising solution for bringing electricity to the 940 million people around the world currently living without it, also happens to be one of the most climate-friendly options: solar power. “The arguments for scaling up access to solar power are compelling,” reports the World Economic Forum. “First, solar is increasingly affordable (costs have fallen five times in the past decade) and more viable for poor communities than the current alternative: unhealthy and polluting diesel generators, which are expensive to operate and add to carbon emissions.”
In order to pay for this considerable infrastructure development, the World Economic Forum has identified five ways to attract and facilitate private investment: 1. De-risk investment; 2. Cross-sector collaboration; 3. Enabling regulation; 4. Public-private collaboration; and 5. Longer term systemic investments.
Around the world, small startups are already leading the charge to bring small-scale solar and renewable energy communities to those currently living without access to electricity. In Africa, the CrossBoundary Energy Access Fund is in the process of connecting 34,000 rural households and small businesses to mini-grids. In Brazil, the Brazilian Association of Distributed Generation is helping to build solar-powered energy communities under the motto “showing solidarity is consuming the energy generated in your own municipality.” Indeed, small-scale distributed solar and energy communities are becoming increasingly buzzed about as a major potential catalyst for sustainable development in emerging economies. The big new thing in energy may just be really, really small.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com