Building a Country by Switching On the Lights

  • Share
  • Read Later
Gideon Mendel / Corbis

The first decades of the 21st century will be remembered as the ones in which the world finally began to grapple with global development. The likes of Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono — TIME's Persons of the Year in 2005 — have channeled funds to fighting malaria, TB and HIV, while supporting agriculture, infrastructure and even governance. But there's one obstacle to development that has too often been forgotten, a blind spot that does more than almost anything to keep the poor poor: they don't have electric power.

Some 1.6 billion people around the world lack reliable access to electricity. That means they don't have electric lights for students to study by at night. They can't easily charge cell phones — assuming they even have them — which means they can't easily create markets or sell goods. Without regular power, their hospitals are severely limited — after all, you can't even keep vaccines cold without a refrigerator. Agriculture is essentially peasantry if farmers lack powered machinery. As long as those hundreds of millions remain in the dark, they will remain poor — yet solving energy poverty isn't even one of the U.N.'s ambitious Millennium Development Goals.

At the same time, the reality of climate change means that even the developing world needs to look for cleaner sources of energy because Western-style growth driven by fossil fuels could lead to catastrophe. That's left a gap to be filled by small but innovative organizations like E+Co, a New Jersey–based group that lends out capital to entrepreneurs in the developing world to create clean energy businesses. The effect is multiple — the loans create business, help reduce energy poverty and keep carbon emissions from growing. "Without energy, very little can happen," says Christine Eibs Singer, who heads E+Co. "It's clear to us that if you want to help with development, you need to address energy."

In the 1990s, E+Co grew out of the Rockefeller Foundation, the venerable philanthropic organization that has funded development assistance for decades. Its philosophy is still the same: find entrepreneurs on the ground in the developing world who are ready to market clean-energy solutions, and get them the capital and support they need to get started. E+Co — which has offices in Africa, Asia and South America — works with local NGOs to support those entrepreneurs, often bypassing governments on the ground. Most of the projects they help fund are off-the-grid energy solutions — solar panels or biogas, which is produced with animal or human waste. That has another added benefit: for those parts of the developing world that aren't wired to any kind of power grid, on-site generation can be an instant solution. Solar panels remain a green luxury for citizens in rich nations — they already have access to reliably cheap power — but for those who are truly off the grid, solar might offer the only way to get electricity quickly, without waiting for a government to string power lines to a rural village.

The energy problem isn't just about electricity. E+Co has begun to move into clean cook stoves, one of the most underpublicized but important health-and-development challenges in the world. Too many of the global poor still use basic wood stoves for heat and cooking, and the resulting indoor air pollution in badly ventilated homes kills more people every year than malaria. Wood stoves also mean that someone in a developing world family — almost always a woman or girl — needs to spend long hours gathering firewood, sacrificing time that could be spent in a school or business. The clean cook stoves E+Co is supporting — which often run on biogas — can help change that. "This is a very real health threat that can be fought with the right investment," says Singer. "This really is a win-win."

There's ample funding available for clean energy projects around the world — after all, Europe and Japan are still operating under the Kyoto Protocol and need to purchase carbon credits to meet their emissions reduction targets. Billions of dollars worth of investment run through the U.N.'s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which verifies the soundness of projects and issues carbon credits. But most of that money flows to major industrial projects in high-emission countries like China, which gets more than 60% of what's available, while Africa and South America (aside from Brazil) are barely on the map. That's because there's little incentive for funders to seek out small community projects; investors get more carbon credit for their buck helping one major Chinese factory become more efficient than finding dozens of small-scale solar projects of the sort E+Co funds. "We have to queue up and they always take someone bigger," says Singer. "We're never at the top of the list on CDM."

It's true that large industrial projects will usually offer more sheer carbon value than small ones. But carbon investment isn't just supposed to be about carbon — it's also meant as development aid. Singer would like to see the CDM and other agencies that verify carbon credits take social, development and health impacts into consideration when judging projects, creating a "carbon-plus" standard for projects. "We want these communities to get the technology right the first time," says Singer. "You need to incentivize them to start out low-carbon."

Carbon and climate aside, though, the poorest parts of the developing world need to get energy, and soon. Just as the U.S. made rural electrification a major priority in the 1930s — think of the Tennessee Valley Authority under the New Deal — countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia need to make sure their citizens have regular power access. If it's clean power, so much the better. Energy poverty is slowly rising on the development agenda — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for clean energy access for all at the recent World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, and E+Co was a runner-up in that city's lucrative Zayed Future Energy Prize, winning $300,000. But for the hundreds of millions who still live in the dark, it's not coming fast enough.