Untapped: What’s energy poverty and why do we need to end it?

May 14 2021

We live in a world that’s powered by electricity – from transportation and cooking, to the cell phones we carry in our pockets and the street lights that guide us home at night. Electricity keeps us fed and watered, connected to one another, and safe from harm. It’s also everywhere – pulsating through the planet produced by wind, water, solar, fossil fuels, and more. 

However, access to usable electricity is not always evenly distributed – and it’s not always sustainable. 

What if we could transform the way we produce and distribute electricity, creating a more abundant future for everyone? 

Back in 2010, the World Economic Forum defined energy poverty as “the lack of access to sustainable modern energy services and products”. To be more accurate, that means conditions where there’s a lack of “adequate, affordable, reliable, quality, safe and environmentally sound energy services to support development”. 

According to a report in Reuters, 10% of the planet still does not have access to electricity. It’s also been estimated that 3 billion people on the planet still lack access to clean fuels for cooking, instead using kerosene, coal, and wood, which contribute to the epidemic of deaths caused by the inhalation of indoor pollutants.

Developing countries are often those usually equipped with the worst generation and transmission services, or access to electricity. Take sub-Saharan Africa, where it’s estimated that approximately 600 million people – 57% of the population – live without electricity, while 350 million people – 9% of the population – lack access in developing Asia. “Insufficient energy usually translates into the impossibility to develop agriculture and manufacturing,” reports the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity, “thus keeping the poorest countries trapped in a vicious circle: they cannot afford the energy that can drive them out of poverty.”

In many developed countries, too, energy poverty is a huge challenge. Sources suggest that one in three households in the USA struggle to pay their energy bills, while research papers show that African American households are those hit hardest, and indicate that energy poverty has been growing among white American households over the last 25 years. In Europe, the European Commission reports that 34 million people were unable to keep their homes warm in 2018, and the Jacques Delors Institute put the number at 30 million for 2019. 

Not every individual, family, or household wants or needs electricity – some Indigenous communities, for instance, may choose to live off-grid. Yet, for many people, living without an adequate or affordable supply can hinder access to education and employment. We’ve seen this issue become more pronounced since COVID-19 hit and our reliance on technology and internet connectivity for remote schooling and working has increased. 

At the same time, reports show that the economic insecurity brought about by COVID-19 has actually worsened energy poverty in the USA and also in Africa – meaning the need to revolutionize the way we distribute has become even more urgent. 

So, how do we end energy poverty and better protect the planet in the process? Around the world, individuals, activists, private companies, and governments are taking on the challenge, with many positive and exciting solutions unfolding. 

One great example is the EU’s Renovation Wave. In Europe, where badly insulated building stock is responsible for a third of the continent’s greenhouse gas emissions, tackling poor quality buildings and homes is seen as a critical part of tackling energy poverty and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. The Renovation Wave aims to see 35 million existing buildings – including 800,000 in social housing – renovated to cut emissions, reduce energy bills and help the continent become climate neutral by 2050. The European Commission is also due to unveil its plans for new minimum standards imposed on building owners later this year. 

Another initiative is Switch Energy Alliance – a group that promotes an energy-educated future that is “objective, nonpartisan, and sensible”. They disseminate this information about energy – and specifically, ending energy poverty in sustainable ways – through their videos, like the 2020 feature-length documentary, Switch On, which investigates how, across Africa, Asia and Latin America, billions of people are suffering from the lack of safe and reliable energy, impacting literacy and education, water and food supply, communication, healthcare, and the economy. 

As we navigate our way out of the pandemic, investing in sustainable electricity should be part of all COVID-19 recovery plans, according to experts. Speaking at a recent event hosted by The Washington Post – named The Future Reset: Ending Energy Poverty – Ashvin Dayal, Senior Vice President, Power, and Climate, The Rockefeller Foundation elaborated: 

“We've seen enormous innovation in technologies like solar, storage, that makes distributed renewables an increasingly viable part of the ecosystem of electrification. Now, these systems can be rolled out quite quickly [...] they create jobs in the near term for construction and installation, they create ongoing jobs in terms of maintenance, and of course, they support productive activities within local economies, whether that's for agricultural processing or off-farm activities.” 

This investment is not just addressing a crisis for today and tomorrow, but is an investment in “the kind of infrastructure that's going to serve us for the next 20, 30, 40 years, allowing hundreds of millions of people to lift themselves out of situations of poverty or underdevelopment,” he added.

These ideas light the way for ending energy poverty are those that put sustainability front and center. Relying on fossil fuels for our electricity sources leads to more CO2 emissions and therefore contributes to global warming. It is no longer a viable option, and that’s why – as well as harnessing the renewable options already out there – we need to keep one eye on developing the renewable energy sources of tomorrow, reducing rather than contributing to carbon emissions. 

Innovators are currently working on carbon capture and utilization methods that turn CO2 into fuels, and while cost and scaling currently pose a challenge, we couldn’t be more excited about where this technology will go. 

Ending energy poverty is not just good for our health, and good for economic development, it’s good for the health of the planet. Most importantly, all three are connected. As global warming and air toxicity linked to the burning of fossil fuels and solid fuels continue to affect our lungs and our livelihoods, rethinking, rebuilding, and redesigning energy systems is our ticket to unlocking human potential. As the saying goes: if we can end energy poverty, we can end poverty… allowing more individuals, families, and communities across the world to thrive.