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If you’re reading this, you probably have access to reliable electricity, 24/7, on demand. But 1.2 billion people around the world do not have access to that luxury. The electricity that does come to them is weak, sporadic, or not available at all. About 95 percent of these people are in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and around 80 percent of them live in rural areas. Looking at global electrification maps, they’re the people who live in what look like black holes of energy poverty.
When we think about electrification, most of us think instantly about lighting—and illumination is certainly important. Light enables people to work or study after sunset, its warm glow can mean safety for women and children walking home or around town at night. But lighting isn’t enough to transform lives.
The idea is simple: ample and reliable electricity can help people break out of the cycle of poverty.
The World Bank estimates that delivering electricity to the world’s energy poor could create 1.5 trillion additional productive hours, equivalent to 31 weeks of full-time employment or education for every energy-poor person on Earth. Access to enough energy is so central to socio-economic development that providing 2,500 kwH per person per year is enough to move a country from low to high on the Human Development Index—which measures a population’s well-being in terms of health and longevity, access to knowledge, and social mobility as well as economic indicators. In the United States, households consume over 10,000 kwH on average every year.
Lighting alone will not do this. If we want to unlock UN Sustainable Development Goal 7, we need to think bolder and dream bigger. Innovators around the world have been building amazing technology every day in the race to close the gap on global energy poverty—from cheaper batteries to sturdier solar panels, to climate-resistant mini-grids. At The Rockefeller Foundation, we partner with them to apply their inventions to real-world market contexts. Since 2015, through our Smart Power for Rural Development initiative, we have been working with rural communities in India to scale these empowering technologies, so we can amplify the reach of transformative energy and help people realize their full potential.
I am inspired by the results thus far. In India, Smart Power has helped build mini-grids in remote villages where less than 10 percent have access to reliable electricity. In less than a year, small businesses reported an average increase of 13 percent in monthly revenues, 11 percent of businesses connected to Smart Power grids say they have expanded their businesses, and 7 percent of the enterprises in these hamlets were created as a result of gaining access to energy.
When we bring together technological innovations like better metering technologies with market innovations such as the Smart Power model, we’re creating the conditions for people to seize the opportunities that access to reliable energy unlocks—the energy that you and I take for granted in the developed world, the energy that powers our lives. Rajni, a seamstress in Kamlapur, now uses a sewing machine to make more bags and augment her income, so her children can buy books for school. Sarita, a tribal woman from Pasanga, has banded together with other women to start their own organic rice business, thanks to access to hulling equipment. And there’s Jewel from Gumla, who started a community cold storage facility, which helps neighbors like Jaghu minimize business losses from his fruit stand.
Bringing power to 1.2 billion people in the world’s most remote communities by 2030, the year the international community has targeted for achieving the SDGs, may seem daunting. It won’t be easy, but through innovation, partnerships, and collaboration, we can create a perfect storm for universal energy access that can empower and bring dignity to the lives of those left behind by the modern economy.