SEATTLE, Washington — Despite significant increases in the past few decades, the world’s current rate of electrical development will not meet the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goal of providing access to electricity for the entire global population. Even in nations where the percentage of the population with access to reliable electricity increases, overall population growth has led to the number of people without electricity to increase as well. However, researchers could generate electricity using radiative cooling, providing one solution to the issue.
Approximately 13% of the global population still lacks access to reliable electricity, particularly in poor and rural areas where there are high costs of electricity infrastructure and transmission. Over 60% of the electricity-deficient population lives in Sub-Saharan Africa while more than 25% live in South Asia. In high-income countries like the U.S., 100% of the population has access to reliable electricity in some capacity. Furthermore, the average per capita consumption of electricity in high-income countries exceeds per capita consumption in electrified areas of low-income countries by as much as 10,000%.
The Consequences of Life without Electricity
Lack of electricity poses one of the most prominent threats to economic development and improved standards of living in low- and middle-income countries. Without electricity, healthcare services cannot operate or may function sub-optimally at night during emergency procedures such as childbearing. A lack of electricity also inhibits functional medical equipment, clean water supply, equipment sanitation procedures and proper vaccine storage in healthcare facilities.
In electricity-deficient areas, daylight hours restrict operational business hours and people have limited livelihood opportunities. They cannot digitally network or share resources to develop businesses and grow the local economy.
In addition, daylight hours restrict schooltime in electricity-deficient areas. Students lack access to learning tools like the internet and projectors. Without electric stoves or other modern cookstoves, some children must stay home from school to help collect solid fuels such as wood, dung and charcoal for food preparation and survival. The use of these fuels indoors causes indoor air pollution that leads to diseases including pneumonia and lung cancer.
Unreliable or nonexistent access to electricity hinders economic and social development, and it can even be life-threatening. Widening the breadth of electricity access is therefore a crucial step towards improving the livelihoods of the world’s poor and off-grid electricity will play an essential role in meeting this goal.
A Way Forward
One of the largest costs of implementing solar energy comes from energy storage. During the night or in areas of the world without long hours of full sun exposure during the day, captured solar energy is necessary to guarantee a reliable supply of electricity. Population growth and industrialization across the globe both exacerbate this expense and make reliable clean energy resources necessary to mitigate environmental degradation and energy-induced social conflicts.
Dr. Shanhui Fan and a team of researchers at Stanford University input real-world physical parameters into a computer simulation to create an optimal model to generate electricity using radiative cooling. In their model, a device small enough to function on a rooftop converts heat from the atmosphere to thermal energy. It then compounds this energy by emitting waste-heat into outer space and capturing the work of radiative cooling using a heat engine.
Fan and her peers demonstrated that their theoretical device, which operates without any energy inputs, could generate as much as 120 times as much energy produced in previous experiments to generate electricity using radiative cooling. Their theoretical model can operate at night and in off-grid areas with limited sunlight using inexpensive, existing technologies.
Although experiments have yet to be conducted on real-life applications of Fan and her team’s theoretical device, it could be the breakthrough in the future of global energy supply. An inexpensive device that can generate electricity using radiative cooling would make clean, off-grid electricity to be accessible in rural areas of low- and middle-income countries. It even has the potential to help clean the atmosphere by producing electricity with energy from waste heat emitted by fossil-fuel burning technologies like cars.
– Avery Saklad