Energy Poverty: A Condemnation of Innocence

Energy poverty is a shame. There are over 1.3 billion people worldwide who currently have zero electricity. More than 3 billion cook with dirty fuels such as wood, dung, coal, and crop waste. Most of these dire situations occur in sub-Saharan African countries, which coincidentally contain some of the largest amounts of fossil fuel reserves worldwide. National Geographic reports that Nigeria, the largest oil-producing country in Africa, is second to India in the number of citizens without electricity. These 82.4 million people struggle despite resting on the continent’s largest natural gas reserves.

Lack of energy not only affects basic human needs like heating, lighting, and the ability to cook, but it also affects healthcare, transportation, education, economy, and communication.

The White House announced a new project last June called Power Africa, which is geared towards doubling Africa’s access to power. It will focus on using Africa’s large gas and oil reserves, and potentially developing new renewable sources such as hydro, wind, and solar. Its aim is to add more than 10,000 megawatts of generation and increase electricity access to at least 20 million new homes.


The easiest and most cost effective way to implement an immediate energy accessibility plan is by using fossil fuels. Despite the West’s cries that fossil fuel use needs to be trimmed, building expensive and temperamental renewable systems in countries that need immediate assistance is counterproductive. It would be too costly and would deliver too little supply to areas that require significant assistance. The International Energy Agency (IEA) quells any notion of adverse security and environmental effects, saying, “Concerns that achieving modern energy access for all would unduly magnify the challenges of energy security or climate change are unfounded, as it would increase global energy demand and CO2 emissions by no more than 1% in 2030.”

Are fossil fuels in these areas sustainable, though? Based on the IEA report, it’s likely they are. Given the chart below and the unlikelihood of a rapid transition to a solely renewable-based energy platform, it appears that fossil fuels will be used for another quarter century as other resources are slowly integrated.

Image Courtesy EIA

Image Courtesy EIA

Transition From Poverty To Abundance

The world is substantially behind in its efforts to create sustainable energy for everyone. Despite good intent and worldwide spending of $49 billion annually to bring energy to the neediest areas, the IEA now estimates that close to $1 trillion will be needed to reach universal energy access by 2030.

Fortunately, areas like Haiti are already being assisted. NRG, Energy Curtailment Specialists, and other organizations recently traveled to Haiti, completing another round of solar panel installation at the Zamni Beni Orphanage.

It’s unknown if the world will actually see a day when everyone has access to unlimited energy. Governments need to spend much more on energy poverty programs, and energy companies need to look past immediate returns and consider the future benefits for all.

Practical Action, a charity working to eliminate poverty, states

In urban areas it is frequently the case that after just a few months of connection to electricity, poor people stop using it. Despite the regular supply of kerosene, natural gas and LPG, people continue to use wood or biomass residues or charcoal. In rural areas, small energy generation systems, installed to provide electricity to small villages or communities, frequently last a few months before being abandoned. Similarly, large numbers of projects for the dissemination of efficient stoves have not changed the use of three stones from being a common practice.

It is difficult to change the way of life that people have followed for generations, especially when implementing an unfamiliar service like energy efficiency. Those living with inefficient means might not be open to assistance or modifications that will upset their norm. Therefore, it is imperative that organizations be responsive to the needs, cultures, and wishes of those they are helping, in order to implement long-term, sustainable programs.

Energy poverty is indeed a shame, but there are ways to combat it. Long-term programs, appropriated funds, and communication between countries are vital to not only address current poverty levels, but to ensure they remain in check as the world’s population grows.

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  • http://www.greenlightplanet.com Harsh D Thakkar

    You need to check out what GreenLight Planet is doing. They have developed and designed an affordable solution for remote villages without electricity to offer off-grid lighting through solar lantern. The device is called SunKing. Each unit is compact, efficient, and safe from fire hazards and CO emission caused by Kerosene.

    • Wayne Kovach

      Hi, Harsh. Thanks for commenting.

      The SunKing sounds like a great innovation and clearly has the potential to help a lot of people. It would be great to see this company eventually market a product that helps with refrigeration, as well.