Empowering The Power-less

David Roberts eyes the challenges of providing electricity to places with little infrastructure:

The world’s energy poor are largely concentrated in two areas, South Asia (India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan) and Subsaharan Africa. The context of development is very different between and within those areas. Energy poverty is suffered both by those on the periphery of sprawling urban areas and by those in remote rural villages. Their prospects for reliable grid connection are different, though in neither case are they particularly good.

In both cases, there are reasons grid access has not yet arrived, ranging from corruption to lack of funding. The poor, almost by definition, lack political power, and resources tend to flow to the politically powerful. Energy decisions — especially centralized energy decisions, which involve huge chunks of capital and the participation of large financial interests and government agencies — are first and foremost political decisions.

Witness current political fights over whether institutions like the World Bank or the IMF should fund fossil fuel plants. Fossil fuel advocates use energy access as an argument while eliding the fact that fossil fuel plants are not the same thing as grid access. It is entirely possible to build fossil fuel power plants in these areas only to have all the power go to already-connected, wealthier industrial users.