This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. On Oct. 19, you’re invited to join us for a Future Tense event in Washington, D.C., about the next era of energy. For more information and to RSVP for “What Will Turn Us On in 2030?,” visit the New America Foundation’s website.
We usually speak of “alternative energy sources” as positives. Across the developing world, however, these “alternatives” take the forms of dung and wood for cooking, candles and kerosene for lighting. Governments have done an absolutely dismal job of rolling out access to modern energy.
But there is, as is so often the case, some good news buried here: Clean-tech off-grid solutions are now competitive. Just as many in developing countries skipped landlines and went right to mobile phones, we may soon see the billions who now rely on traditional fuels skip coal and oil and transition directly into sustainable energy sources—which will be an enormous help to the global environment.
The International Energy Agency suggests that 1.4 billion people worldwide still lack access to electricity in their homes. These people are overwhelmingly in poor countries, and most live in rural areas. That means, for example, that only one in seven of the rural population of sub-Saharan Africa has electrical access. Even many of those with access to electricity still have to depend on sources like wood or dung for cooking—adding up to 2.7 billion people worldwide who use “traditional” or “biomass” sources. Wood and dung account for 10.2 percent of global energy supply.
The limited reach of modern energy sources is grim news for the poor people left using alternatives. India alone sees 2.5 million cases of severe burns each year caused by overturned kerosene lamps. And the World Health Organization labels wood stoves “the killer in the kitchen”—the indoor air pollution they produce is responsible for 1.5 million deaths a year.
Beyond their health impacts, fuels like wood, candles, kerosene, and dung are a very expensive source of power. That’s because they are grossly inefficient at turning fuel into usable energy. For each joule of energy a candle turns into visible light, 2,500 joules are wasted (largely as heat). The same number for a traditional incandescent light bulb is one joule to light for every 50 wasted. (For an LED it’s about one to seven.) Traditional wood stoves convert fuel to cooking heat with one-third or less of the efficiency of gas stoves. As a result, poor people often can’t afford adequate lighting, cooking, or heating—when the sun goes down, their houses simply get cold and dark.
Why are so many poor people reliant on heating and lighting technologies that date back centuries or even millenniums? In part because governments in the developing world have focused on providing subsidized electricity to an elite few rather than rolling out access to the many. Survey evidence from a few years ago suggested only 60 percent of costs are met by revenues in the electricity sector of the average developing country. About a third of electricity companies in Africa and South Asia don’t even have the resources to conduct basic operations and maintenance—let alone roll out access to new customers.