Lighting up the Developing World

Electricity has been part of our daily life for the past 100 years. Today, none of us jump in exhilaration, when we switch on a light or charge our phones. Electricity is the norm. It’s everywhere — or so we might think.

In reality, a fifth of our world’s population lacks access to electricity. That equates to 1.2 billion people still being stuck in the dark. Fortunately, there has been some impressive progress in this field: about 1.7 billion people have acquired access to electricity since 1990; however, this rate of growth has still been slower than population growth (Access to electricity grew 1.2% per year, while global population grew 1.3% per year).

The main argument for so many people lacking electricity in rural, developing communities is that they are “beyond the electric grid.” People say that, because these groups of people are out the zone of electricity, they are unable to connect to it, and bringing them into the grid would be extremely expensive. What if this was not always the case? What if I told you that many people are already in the electric grid, but still do not have access to electricity? Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and Tanzania are just some of many countries that are partially in the electric grid, but cannot tap into this technology.

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The National Average for grid coverage rate for Nigeria, as seen above, is over 92%. In Ghana, it is over 80% and in Kenya, the number lays around 70%. When compared to the household access rate in these countries (56% in Nigeria, 61% in Ghana, and 23% in Kenya), it is clear that electricity is not being extrapolated to its fullest potential. Households clustered within 200 meters of a low-voltage power line are considered to be “under-grid”, and connecting them to electricity would, therefore, be possible. If governments wish to leverage existing grid infrastructure, they need to take the households into account, that have the opportunity to electricity, but not the availability.

“If extrapolated to the broader population, up to 230 million people could live near the electrical grid in these five Power Africa countries (out of roughly 300 million people total).” — Ben Leo, Vijaya Ramachandran, Roberb Morello

This is the cheap way to increase access to electricity; however, more can be done in this field to improve the electricity countries have. Let us consider smart grids, which are “a class of technology people are using to bring utility electricity delivery systems into the 21st century, using computer-based remote control and automation”. smart-grid

Currently, many electric grid systems are very ineffective. Rampant theft, severe power outages (many developing countries have power outages of  at least 20 hours each month), and losing electricity during distribution prove that many traditional grids are inept. India, for example, loses more than 25% of its electricity during distribution, which contributed to $25 billion in losses in 2011. In Latin America, this figure is about 14%. Computerizing the electric utility grid could decrease these numbers and, as a result, be transformative for these developing areas of the world.

The timing to change this grid system could not be better. Slums in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are rapidly evolving into modern metropolises. Electricity is a necessity now more than ever and developing countries have a chance to invest in building energy grids from scratch. Unlike mature cities in the developed nations, these “recent” cities can leapfrog outdated technology and move straight to state-of-the-art mechanization.

Furthermore, the tremendous push to conserve electricity and live more efficiently is making the world more eager and interested in the idea of smart grids, since they only provide a household energy, if it is demand. In world-bulbcontrast, traditional systems pump a steady flow of electricity into a home, no matter what the demand is. Because smart grids are addressing worldwide concerns, the industry, which is acquiring a cumulative $15 billion per year, is expected to grow $400 billion worldwide by 2020.

Increased access to electricity in developing countries has an exciting future. The socio-economic benefits associated with this idea can be extremely impactful; however, we need to make sure that this becomes a primary concern for world organizations. Sitting back and not making electricity in developing nations a priority will continue to leave people in the dark.. If we can take the next step and invest in this idea, electricity can become the norm for everyone.


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