One billion in the dark: gaining power vs. saving power
Everything in this world is a matter of perspective. Whether you are rich or poor often has more to do with where you live than your actual income; someone earning $100,000 a year might be perceived as extremely rich in Mumbai, for example, but be firmly “middle income” in Manhattan. The same goes for our concepts of energy and being eco-friendly; in a nation like the United States or Australia where the cities and suburban areas are all wired up, the issue is conserving energy and living an efficient lifestyle centred around saving power and energy efficiency. But what about the more than one billion people in the world who currently still live without electric power? When we consider ways to save power, it’s all well and good to tackle personal use with things like an Ecoswitch or energy efficient appliances, but when you consider that the world’s energy grid is already overtaxed, we have to ask ourselves: Are we prepared for this onslaught?
Wiring the World
And it is coming. In the First World, we’re all used to being wired up because we were largely born into it – there are few people of adult age in modern society in Australia or other First World nations that can remember a time without electricity. But it’s important to know that the process of wiring up the world has never stopped. Between 1990 and 2000, about 1.6 billion people gained access to electricity for the first time in their lives, and that process is continuing. There are still 1.2 billion people living without electric power, led by a staggering 306 million people in India alone.
The fact is, most of the electrical grids in the world are overtaxed as it is, with frequent brownouts and blackouts. In many places in Asia and the Middle-East, city dwellers are quite used to going hours or days at a time with no power. Forget about energy efficiency, forget about conservation, these nations are struggling simply to provide power to their citizens.
The Need for Planning
The problem here is that often just getting any form of electrical service to people is a nearly-insurmountable problem, so asking for sustainability and efficiency is simply impossible. It would be one thing if these people were waiting on electricity so they could play video games and keep their beer cold, but in many of these areas there are entire school systems with no electricity. Entire hospital systems without electricity. The improvement to education, health care, and longevity that results from the introduction of reliable electrical systems is staggering – and impossible to delay. How can you argue that more people should suffer health-related problems and shortened lifespans so that we can come up with a way to pipe power to them sustainably?
Of course, it can be done, the real problem is that no one is looking at it in that way. Work to bring electricity to these areas continues, but it is a disorganised and slap-dash affair, being completed piecemeal as resources and opportunities arise. The fact is, these 1.2 billion people who are currently not draining the world’s energy resources will be draining those resources very soon – the United Nations has set a formal goal of universal electricity by the year 2030 – and if it is impossible to argue against this sort of progress, we all must begin a more aggressive response to planning this sort of progress. Otherwise, all the energy saving switches and five-minute showers in the world aren’t going to help very much.
Obviously, there are limits to everyone’s personal ability to effect change, and this is not meant to discourage anyone from making their own contribution by being as energy-efficient and environmentally conscious in their own lives as possible. In fact, as more and more people need to share our energy resources, it’s even more important for everyone else to be efficient in their own use. So next time you turn your thermostat up in the summer to save some power, think of it this way: Someone in India might have an extra hour of electricity that day because you did.