Energy in the developing world
Power to the people
Technology and development: A growing number of initiatives are promoting bottom-up ways to deliver energy to the world’s poor (Sep 2nd 2010)
AROUND 1.5 billion people, or more than a fifth of the world’s population, have no access to electricity, and a billion more have only an unreliable and intermittent supply. Of the people without electricity, 85% live in rural areas or on the fringes of cities. Extending energy grids into these areas is expensive: the United Nations estimates that an average of $35 billion-40 billion a year needs to be invested until 2030 so everyone on the planet can cook, heat and light their premises, and have energy for productive uses such as schooling. On current trends, however, the number of “energy poor” people will barely budge, and 16% of the world’s population will still have no electricity by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency.
But why wait for top-down solutions? Providing energy in a bottom-up way instead has a lot to recommend it. There is no need to wait for politicians or utilities to act. The technology in question, from solar panels to low-energy light-emitting diodes (LEDs), is rapidly falling in price. Local, bottom-up systems may be more sustainable and produce fewer carbon emissions than centralised schemes. In the rich world, in fact, the trend is towards a more flexible system of distributed, sustainable power sources. The developing world has an opportunity to leapfrog the centralised model, just as it leapfrogged fixed-line telecoms and went straight to mobile phones.
But just as the spread of mobile phones was helped along by new business models, such as pre-paid airtime cards and village “telephone ladies”, new approaches are now needed. “We need to reinvent how energy is delivered,” says Simon Desjardins, who manages a programme at the Shell Foundation that invests in for-profit ways to deliver energy to the poor. “Companies need to come up with innovative business models and technology.” Fortunately, lots of people are doing just that.
Let there be light
Start with lighting, which prompted the establishment of the first electrical utilities in the rich world. At the “Lighting Africa” conference in Nairobi in May, a World Bank project to encourage private-sector solutions for the poor, 50 lighting firms displayed their wares, up from just a handful last year. This illustrates both the growing interest in bottom-up solutions and falling prices. Prices of solar cells have also fallen, so that the cost per kilowatt is half what it was a decade ago. Solar cells can be used to power low-energy LEDs, which are both energy-efficient and cheap: the cost of a set of LEDs to light a home has fallen by half in the past decade, and is now below $25.