Power to the People

According to Malavika Jain Bambawale, there are near to 1,5 billion people without access to electricity out there. Out of that number, more than a half is living in (no, not in Africa, as you may have thought) the Asia Pacific region. Just to realize: 1,5 billion is close to one quarter of the world’s population. It is one of the most challenging problems (and, for that matter, inequalities) of humanity.

Without electricity one is fully isolated. Most of the people involved are living in rural areas – that means, no newspapers, no books, often not even oral news. And without an access to a electricity also no TV, no Internet, no radio.

Furthermore, one is forced to use traditional methods of warming, lighting etc. – mostly through burning biomass or oil, and thus polluting the air one oneself is breathing. In many areas there is not enough wood for burning, so the poor are forced to buy fuel – and that is expensive.

But this situation is not inescapable. One possible solution, with many positive side effects, is provided by renewable energy generation:

  • there is no need for access to the power grid: in most of the countries in consideration there is enough sun/wind/flowing water for power generation at the household/village level (solar home systems, mini-hydroelectric generators, small wind turbines combined with batteries…);
  • renewable energy generation carries close to no negative health impacts;
  • once installed, there is no need for further expenses (such as buying fuel) except maintaining costs, which are mostly very low;
  • one is independent of the reliability of the power grid (that is not really high even in the poorer European countries);
  • there is a positive effect on the environment as well – e.g., burning biomass and oil for heating is a main source of carbon emissions in poor communities;
  • for maintaining the solar panels or wind turbines one needs people trained to do it – it is not that complicated and thus a good possibility for job creation.

The good news is as well that this is a strategy which is good for the government: why build huge centralized power plants and maintain expensive grids? Not to mention the common problem in poor countries of clients not paying (mostly: not able to pay) their bills. It is much better to rely on spreading decentralized renewable energy technologies. And, for that matter, it becomes more and more profitable for the private sector: as Bambawale argues, monthly installment costs of a PV panel are manageable even in the poorest communities. I would add the fact that, instead of individual power generation, one could start at the village level – then it is even easier for the poor to pay for the installment.

Such are projects in the energy generation sector the international development programmes (especially the World Bank’s) should foster and support. That would finally give power to the people.

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