The notion of “electrification” for the world’s poor conjures up wishful images.  It’s also a key issue in climate policy. In the business-as-usual world, expanding grids tend to entail more burning of coal and other fossil fuels, driving up greenhouse-gas emissions.

Some official estimates put the world's un-electrified population at about 1.3 billion, or one-fifth of humanity. While a stark number, I think it understates the true extent of the problem.

Often when a single power connection is made to a village – perhaps at a school, streetlight, or chief’s home – the entire village is counted as electrified. Those genuinely connected experience regular outages. Others simply can’t pay their bills, forcing them to revert to kerosene and other polluting and dangerous fuels for light.  

Last summer, the world took notice – if only for a moment – when more than half a billion people were without power across India. By my calculations, each night of the event, kerosene worth $25 million was burned to light victims’ homes.

While recently visiting a remote Senegalese fishing village I found that only one in two homes are connected to the local power generators, which are in turn idle more often than not due to the cost and difficulty of obtaining fuel that must be brought in by boat.  Only one in 20 homes in this “electrified” village has a refrigerator.

Gas-guzzling generators are also a common sight in ostensibly electrified cities. They pipe electricity from sidewalks into darkened indoor markets during power cuts. Captive small enterprises pay dearly for electricity from sidewalk power brokers – about a dollar a day to light one small lamp, or 100-times the price paid before the grid went down.  During one such outage in the bustling city of Dakar, Senegal I squinted and then winced to see a woman hacking fish with a sharp cleaver in near darkness on the edge of a small puddle of overpriced light. Around the corner a garment worker deep in the core of another building fumbled a cell phone to illuminate the needle in his sewing machine. Energy access isn’t only a rural problem.

I later visited “electrified “ homes in the countryside. One compound housed 32 people in seven tiny huts that would together easily fit inside the footprint of a modest American house. The residents share a single fridge, which is unplugged 16 hours of the day to save money. To help meet suppressed demand for light, they spend about a month’s average Senegalese salary each year on candles to burn alongside each sputtering low-grade fluorescent light. The lone bulb in one of these huts had long since broken. A spider had set up house in the socket. 

Electricity service is routinely terminated for such households due to non-payment, with prohibitively high fees to resume.  De-electrified, food spoils while these people revert back to even more flame-based light. I spoke with a shopkeeper who asks to be disconnected during the rainy season due to reduced business, instead burning candles and unplugging his fridge at home.

These vignettes are a far cry from what we would like to think of as electrification.

If the lack of light isn’t in itself a call to action, consider that flame-based lighting is responsible for slum fires that routinely displace thousands of people across the developing world. Lethal burns result when kerosene is – sometimes intentionally – diluted with gasoline, resulting in an explosive flaming cocktail. Locals call these incidents “explosion epidemics” because big spikes of victims swamp the local hospitals. If this is not enough, the unintentional drinking of kerosene is the number-one cause of child poisoning in the developing world.

Some who enjoy 99.9999% grid uptime in the West ding solar for being intermittent. In reality, consumers in much of the developing world long for the reliability and autonomy that solar offers over fickle grids.  Dozens of startups have recently brought to market portable off-grid lighting systems coupled with bright LED lights and small rechargeable batteries. After a day in the sun, they light up life throughout the evening. 

Grid-free, pollution-free, wireless electrification; now there’s a bright idea.

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Comment by Peter Alstone on February 3, 2013 at 7:36am

Amen Evan!  

LED lighting and other superefficient appliances are changing the landscape of how off-grid devices can deliver service, I wonder if there is space for the same kinds of interventions on grids that are stretched to the max.

There are certainly some things that grid power just does better than off-grid, like run motors....but fully agreed that getting reliable electricity for the first few watt-hours is paramount.  

Comment by Yoseph Berhane on January 24, 2013 at 9:19am

How true it is!!

Comment by Evan Mills on January 23, 2013 at 11:00pm

Agreed Shane. And, while we (rightfully) puzzle over the last-mile problem with our "wireless lighting" solutions, the grid guys and girls clearly have an even greater challenge in that respect...  Here's to technological leapfrogging.  Cheers.

Comment by Shane Thatcher on January 23, 2013 at 10:22pm

Very true indeed Evan. I think it is also interesting that most of the Governments in the places you are talking about have a stated goal of increasing electrification and no discernible way of paying for it. Like the fact that since the rapid uptake of mobile phone technology no government on the planet now wants to roll-out landline technology, I hope that the introduction of many and varied low cost, distributed, solar solutions will provide the solution that makes this goal mute over the coming decades.

Comment by Yotam Ariel on January 23, 2013 at 9:44pm

Nice article, Evan.

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