John Hoffmire: Why we must take energy poverty seriously

By John Hoffmire, Deseret News National Edition

Published: Mon, July 21, 2014, 7:30 a.m. MDT

 Afghan refugee children attend classes shortly before starting an event on the occasion of U.N. World Day Of Social Justice, at a makeshift school set up in a mosque on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014.

Afghan refugee children attend classes shortly before starting an event on the occasion of U.N. World Day Of Social Justice, at a makeshift school set up in a mosque on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014.

(Muhammed Muheisen, Associated Press)

Poverty has been, and continues to be, one of the major problems facing both developed and non-developed countries across the world. According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, over 45 million Americans are listed as having an income below poverty level. However, while the focus domestically is mostly on income as a driver of hardship, worldwide there are several more classifications.

The area of poverty with the greatest potential for positive impact is energy.

Simply defined by the International Energy Agency (IEA), energy poverty is “a lack of access to modern energy services.” Specifically, the IEA interprets services as “electricity and clean cooking facilities” where clean means non-polluting.

The statistics on energy poverty are heartbreaking. Nearly 1.4 billion people, almost 20 percent of the global population, have no access to electricity. Approximately 95 percent of these people live in either sub-Saharan Africa or developing Asia. Additionally, 2.7 billion people live without access to heating or cooking fuel. Just preparing a cooked meal requires hours of work, searching out burnable wood, peat or dung. Often the only alternatives are dangerous flammable materials, most notably kerosene.

Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine coming home after a hard day at work: it is dark and you want to make dinner. You have no lights, no stove and no oven. You cannot even use the light from a mobile device as it has ran out of batteries and you have no way to charge it.

Unfortunately, energy poverty has a more lasting impact than inconveniencing dinner. More than 3.5 million premature deaths each year are linked to household air pollution stemming from using solid fuels for lighting and cooking. Education is also impacted as students have no way to continue reading or writing at home after nightfall.

Environmental damage adds to the cost; most notably in Pakistan where less than 5 percent of its original forest cover remains. Lastly, gender equality suffers as women are forced to spend much of their time gathering fuel, and often water as well, limiting opportunities.

The main challenge facing the fight against energy poverty is how best to combat this problem. In the developed world, energy is produced, stored and distributed across massive grids. These require time, significant investment and other resources. Plus, this model is strained when applied to rural areas, often requiring even more capital and resources to reach those far away from city centers. And yet, despite these precedents, several startups have begun developing solutions that fly in the face of this traditional understanding of energy.

Similar to how several poorer countries leapfrogged landline phone networks straight to mobile phones, entrepreneurs are moving past the centralized grid in favor of local power generation. One company, D.light, supplies solar-powered lanterns that can last for 12 hours after a day of charging. Husk Power Systems, an Indian startup, has combined diesel generators with biomass gasifiers that can be powered by rice husks, typically a waste product. These generators, which produce enough power for around 600 families, have turned a profit in only six months of operation while providing very cheap energy. Another firm, Emergence BioEnergy, helps farmers harness methane produced from cattle manure to power a small kilowatt generator. On top of providing energy needed to preserve milk, the generator also produces a surplus that can be sold to neighbors at an affordable price.

These innovations, coupled with work by NGOs and government initiatives, are part of the fight against energy poverty. As awareness grows and entrepreneurship flourishes, significant progress will most likely be made in the near future.

John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the School of Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Ben Young, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.

1. george of the jungle
goshen, UT,
July 21, 2014

Until I can pay my utility bills, buy grocery's, put gas in the car, insurance, taxes and fees. then to get items to keep thing repaired. Any discretionary money is gone. Savings? ha.

2. Sensible Scientist
Rexburg, ID,
July 21, 2014

I recently asked an engineer from Nigeria what his country needed most. He said they need to build steel mills and power generators (both using their own natural resources), but the U.N. and World Bank won't lend them money because of environmental restrictions on loans.

I asked a medical volunteer what poor African doctors need most. She said the U.N. and well-meaning people keep giving them solar panels that can barely power a medicine refrigerator during the day, when what they need is full-scale power plants for lighting, 24-hour refrigeration, and water pumping.

The U.N. and other well-meaning people need to get their priorities straight. Worry about environmental luxuries after people have electricity.

3. procuradorfiscal
Tooele, UT,
July 21, 2014

Re: "The statistics on energy poverty are heartbreaking. Nearly 1.4 billion people . . . have no access to electricity."

Energy poverty? In the years I lived in this energy poverty, we just called it living. Mom also told us stories of the day they emerged from this newly identified poverty -- the day FDR [or, his Rural Electrification Administration, at least] gifted them one naked light bulb in the living room of their house out on the ranch.

It was nice, but was certainly not life-changing. And, once they found out how much it cost FDR, they'd have much preferred a grant from him in that amount. And would have made much better use of it.

Actual beneficiaries of this newly-declared war on energy poverty will not be the energy poor. Rather, energy-industry barons, including leftist American crony capitalists and rich, but overextended Chinese industrialists in the industry's not-ready-for-primetime wing, are the real impetus behind this latest poverty newspeak.

The poor have much more dire needs. And these would be best met by consulting them, rather than crony capitalists and political hacks.

4. What in Tucket?
Provo, UT,
July 21, 2014

It is not as difficult to find out what to do, but to get people to do it. What do nations that are very prosperous do that poor countries do not? Check the Index of Economic Freedom online and learn. Our standing on this index is going down due to our present administration's high taxes and red tape, etc.

5. Hutterite
American Fork, UT,
July 21, 2014

Not a lot of leftists in the crony capitalist camp.
Energy, even in the form of one solar powered LED light in a home, is progress. It's education inside when work can no longer be done outside. It's light without fire or smoke. Maybe it's a small shortwave radio. The world out there suddenly gets a voice. I don't think there's a legitimate way to really push back and say providing even the most rudimentary beginnings of the addition of technology to people's lives isn't a worthwhile effort. Our nation started there, once. One light in a room. I'm glad Edison didn't see it as merely a political get rich quick scam.