Power to the people

Driving a revolution in affordable energy for humanity

More than a billion people with no access to modern electricity is a global injustice. Change will require a massive, coordinated investment of research, resources and resolve.


To truly grasp what it means to be energy poor — and to understand vast global disparities in access to electricity — consider this simple analogy.

1 in 5people have enough electricity to power a light bulb and a washing machine
3 in 5people have only enough electricity to power a light bulb
1 in 5people have neither

1.5 billion people in the world have, say, a light bulb and a washing machine. Another 4 billion have only the light bulb. And, 1.5 billion have neither.

Factor in the lack of access to modern fuels such as gas, and fully a third of humanity — that’s roughly 2.5 billion people — live on the margins of society.

It’s an enormous global imbalance, and one that is not confined to the developing world. Many remote indigenous communities right here in Canada are also energy poor because they rely on diesel fuel that’s trucked or flown in at exorbitant prices.

Experts say the absence of electricity has an enormous impact on economic productivity, health, education, and social and cultural development. It’s one of the main obstacles to human development, touching lives in ways that we in the West can scarcely imagine.

To that end, Jatin Nathwani, executive director of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy (WISE), launched Affordable Energy for Humanity (AE4H), a global coalition of more than 100 people from 27 institutions in 12 countries — including Waterloo’s counterpart in Germany, the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology, and leading researchers at institutions including Cambridge, Oxford and Berkeley.

AE4H harnesses global muscle and brainpower to transform the lives of those living without electricity.

Energy poverty: destroying productivity and potential

“These people are essentially the poorest in the world, and when night falls, it is pretty harsh,” says Nathwani, who is also a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Waterloo.

“If you take the view that energy is a fundamental enabler of human betterment — one that is intricately linked to quality of life — access to it remains a very powerful driver for high levels of achievement.”

Zimbabwean Chiedza Mazaiwana agrees. As an advocacy officer for AE4H-founding partner Practical Action — a non-governmental organization based in the United Kingdom — she says the lack of affordable, accessible electricity destroys the productivity and potential of millions.

Rural African women, in particular, walk for hours each day — sometimes 10 kilometres or more — to collect firewood for cooking and washing. When darkness falls, chores are done by candlelight, kerosene lamp, or the dying embers of an indoor cooking fire.

Lack of electricity impacts all aspects of life. Women give birth in the dark. Fumes from cooking lead to health problems and premature death. Children can’t study at night. There is no storage for vaccines or other medicines, no light or electrical equipment for health care workers. Crops must be watered by hand.

What precious electricity there is often goes only as far as to charge a cell phone or power a single light bulb. For billions of people, anything more than that — powering up a fridge, say, or a TV — is beyond comprehension.

‘The rationale for action now is compelling’

On the other hand, we in the West expect our power to be reliable, we expect it to be fast, and we certainly don’t expect it to disrupt our day. Nathwani describes the global energy that we rely on as a vast, interconnected system that extracts huge amounts of primary energy yet leaves millions to “scour the forests for twigs and branches for basic needs.

“Energy poverty remains a barrier to economic well-being for such a large proportion of humanity that the rationale for action now is compelling,” Nathwani says.

“The recognition of this issue has come full force to the highest level of discussion, almost at par with the challenges of climate change. It brings into focus the most formidable scientific challenges of this century: How do we get to a clean energy future that is essentially non-carbon?”

Renewable energy technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines and small-scale hydro plants can generate power on a smaller scale — and these technologies promise to bring power to rural, highly impoverished places without the need to invest in a huge central grid.

Power imbalance

Energy access around the world

Does this sound fair to you? One hundred per cent of people in North America have access to energy, but only 18 per cent of people in Uganda do.

This map shows how energy access varies widely around the world.

Map showing access to energy per country. Links to alternate versions follow

Alternate version showing worldwide access to energy

Energy use around the world

Did you know the average Canadian uses 16,000 kWh per year of energy? In Germany, that number looks more like 7,000 kWh per year, and in India, that number falls to 700 KWh per year. 

To put those numbers in perspective, consider this: the average freezer consumes 350 kWh per year, and a clothes dryer eats up 930 kWh per year. The average person in Kenya and the average person in Haiti use a fraction of the energy that our everyday appliances consume (at 160 kWh and 50 kWh hour respectively).

See how energy use compares among different countries.

Map showing average energy consumption per country

Alternate version showing worldwide energy consumption

Household air pollution and health

Energy poverty can have deadly consequences. Approximately 3 billion people cook and heat their homes using open fires and simple stoves burning biomass (wood, animal dung, crop waste) and coal.

4.3 million people die prematurely each year from illness attributable to household air pollution caused by use of solid fuels for cooking.

These deaths include:

Chart showing top causes of premature death. Links to table with data

Source: World Health Organization, February 2016. View as data table.

Technology alone won't win the battle

But Nathwani says technological innovations are not enough on their own — because solutions must ultimately be adopted in the cultural context of the way people live their lives.

The key is to have a deep supply chain of expertise to provide solutions at both a price point and performance point that are sustainable.

“I have absolutely zero doubt in our ability to succeed,” Nathwani says. “But let’s be realistic — this will take time. We sit on a bed of established technologies and solutions that we can begin to implement. And we can learn from those who are implementing them to actually understand what the barriers are: what’s not working in the field, why good intentions go awry.

“We can learn from that and feed into solutions that are already being implemented, and then the breakthrough technologies will improve things by an order of magnitude in terms of price and reliability.”

Many of the technologies themselves are still new. They need to be more durable, they must be simple, they have to meet people’s needs (because what works in Rwanda, say, won’t necessarily work in Zambia), and they must be more efficient.

Most of all, they must be affordable for the poorest people on the planet.

“Affordability” means that the cost of basic energy services is less than 10 per cent of disposable income. So, for someone who lives on less than $2 a day, their energy cost must not exceed 20 cents a day.

“One can’t just wait for this,” Nathwani says. “It has to have a mission and a clarity of purpose to deliver the fundamental physics and material-design breakthroughs that would influence the next set of devices.

“You can’t be naïve about it because imposed solutions don’t work. You can’t say, ‘Here’s your big black box and isn’t it great?’ ”

Taking a shot at something big and important

Along with its partners, the University of Waterloo is taking a shot at “doing something big and important,” adds Nigel Moore, manager of global programs and initiatives at WISE.

“Now that we’ve got over 100 individual researchers and practitioners from 27 institutions in 12 countries around the world saying, ‘I’d like to be a part of this initiative,’ our job is to marshal this enthusiasm,” Moore says.

“We want to engage in activities where there are tangible links between the things we’re learning in the field in energy-poor communities and the innovation that’s going on in the laboratories in places like the University of Waterloo. Because if we don’t understand what the needs of these people are — but we’re going ahead and trying to create technologies for them anyway — there’s a good chance they won’t work.”

What's next?

The wider mission for AE4H will come from a blueprint developed out of the Waterloo Global Science Initiative’s (WGSI), OpenAccess Energy Summit, which took place April 24 to 27 in Waterloo.

A partnership between the University of Waterloo and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, WGSI hosts bi-annual summits, bringing together researchers, policy makers and community leaders from around the world to develop and implement solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

The summit’s goal is to translate research into action, to foster connections between different organizations and disciplines, and to promote the development of strategic partnerships to meet the global energy access challenge.

Feature image credit: Thinkstock. Maps and infographic: Netzach Straker and Andrea Sweet. Video: Matt Regehr and Light Imaging

 Research and responsibility — what’s the right balance? And are we doing enough? Share your thoughts with us at uwmagazine@uwaterloo.ca.