Understanding the Impact of Energy Poverty

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SEATTLE — As of 2014, some 1.3 billion people across the globe are living without access to electricity. Such a prevalence of “energy poverty” has dire consequences for humanity.

Jude Clemente, in a recent article for Forbes, blamed a lack of access to energy for much of today’s human suffering. According to Clemente, access to energy has been a driving factor in human development, and a critical part of the transformation of agrarian societies into industrial ones.

“This societal transformation, driven by the accumulation of income and wealth, eliminates many contagious diseases, reduces child mortality, and lengthens adult life expectancy—a virtuous cycle that has been demonstrated over the past century in dozens of rich countries. This cycle, however, eludes those without access to energy services,” Clemente said.

Energy poverty affects women disproportionately; while women represent 50 percent of the global population, they make up nearly 75 percent of those living in energy poverty. Women also comprise an inordinately large percentage of the three billion humans that rely on biomass—not electricity—for energy.

Energy poverty also reduces access to education, by forcing children to spend more of their time gathering biomass and drinking water. In fact, it is estimated that women and children across the globe spend a combined 200 million hours per day collecting water.

In addition to the educational problems posed by lack of access to energy, energy poverty produces several ghastly health issues. According to the World Health Organization, a woman dies every minute from complications from pregnancy or childbirth; in developing countries, this is often a result of inadequate lighting or an outright lack of electricity.

The biomass that many depend on as their main source of energy also presents a major health risk. Experts at UC Berkeley say that having an open biomass fire in one’s kitchen is equivalent to burning 400 cigarettes per hour. The World Health Organization believes that indoor air pollution is responsible for more than four million deaths every year—more than Malaria, HIV/AIDS and lung cancers combined.

While the problem is clear, the solution is less so.

Many advocate energy-efficient off-grid solutions such as solar-powered LED lanterns, which require no electricity and pose none of the health risks associated with kerosene lamps.

While LED lanterns—which have the advantage of requiring no investment in infrastructure—may seem like the obvious solution, Clemente believes that a more practical approach is necessary. Clemente says that while energy-efficiency is important, it is also important to remember that energy-efficiency does not necessarily reduce need. Also, off-grid solutions are capital intensive, and less attractive to the private sector than on-grid solutions.

Clemente and others believe coal-based on-grid solutions represent the most effective means of reducing energy poverty. According to a 2013 report from the World Energy Council, coal’s abundance and affordability make it a pragmatic solution. Notes the report, “coal is a major economic and energy resource and will remain a key part of the energy mix well into the future.”

Moving forward, policy makers face the difficult task of determining how to maximize energy access, while minimizing energy-inefficiency and environmental hazards.

Parker Carroll

Sources: Forbes 1, Forbes 2, Water.org. World Energy Council
Photo: The Breakthrough

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