The United Nations has named 2012 the “International Year of Sustainable Energy for All,” setting three goals: ensuring universal access to modern energy services, doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency, and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.
Possibly the greatest area of opportunity for achieving these goals is the developing world, where low electrification rates mean great potential for improving access, efficiency gains from switching to modern energy from traditional fuels can be significant, and expanding populations and standards of living drive demand for new generation facilities, which can take advantage of recent advances in renewable energy technology.
The aforementioned goals are driven not just by environmental sustainability targets, but also by recognition of the significant negative impact that energy poverty has on billions of lives. While a majority of earth’s population lives with critical goods just out of reach—poverty that frequently takes the form of a lack of food, clothing or shelter—a lack of these goods insufficiently describes the full spectrum of poverty that these individuals endure. Many throughout the developing world also experience energy poverty, lacking access to electricity and the light it provides.
According to the IEA, 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity, and 2.7 billion to clean cooking facilities, mostly in rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia. For these populations, productive activity is limited by available energy sources: many clinics close at sundown, vaccinations cannot be refrigerated, and children study by the light of kerosene lanterns. Electrification can improve lives and promote environmental sustainability here not just by providing light and power for a greater range of activities, but also by encouraging a shift away from the traditional energy sources thatcontribute to millions of deaths annually via indoor air pollution.
To provide modern energy, many countries have invested in large-scale primary generation facilities—hydroelectric dams, for example. But the infrastructure necessary to deliver electricity to the entire population is frequently lacking. It’s too expensive to build when the customer base is diffuse and much of the population served cannot afford to pay unsubsidized prices for electricity.
In the coming years, forward-thinking countries will explore strategies to increase renewable primary energy generation in order to provide modern energy access while protecting the shared environment for increasing populations with climbing standards of living. In addition, decentralized electricity generation and transmission—in the form of community mini-grids, for example—can help overcome cost issues in traditional grid expansion and provide modern energy access to alleviate energy poverty. By developing strategies to increase electrification rates efficiently and expandingrenewable energy, countries can both pursue reductions in energy poverty and work toward environmental performance goals.