"Are we to decide the importance of issues by asking how fashionable or glamorous they are? Or by asking how seriously they affect how many?”
The ongoing conversation about the future of energy is nearly inescapable: Nations engage in violent conflict and draw new borders based on oil’s availability, while consumers thousands of miles away struggle with spiking fuel prices and the shifting costs of commodities. A debate rages among scientists, politicians, and corporations over the feasibility of renewable sources and new technologies, many hoping to propel civilization into an era free of energy dependency.
Within this context, it is easy to forget that 1.4 billion people – nearly a quarter of humanity – live without access to electricity (according to the International Energy Agency’s 2010 findings). And it is difficult to fully grasp the social and economic impact of so-called “energy poverty.”
While living and working as a volunteer in remote northern Ghana, I realized how deeply the lack of electricity affected the lives of my neighbors. It impeded their progress in the sectors of health, education, gender equality, agriculture, and virtually every aspect of development. And, of course, there’s the lack of light.
The situation in northern Ghana is not uncommon; in fact, in many places the implications of living without light are far more dire. In my village home, for example, the clinic had solar power, whereas many parts of rural Africa do not have lights or refrigeration even in medical facilities. Indoor cooking over smoky fires is common across much of the developing world, causing lung diseases that the World Health Organization has named one of the top ten global killers. And on any continent, an economic slump can mean the loss of electricity from a community or household, making it nearly impossible to get back on track.
Put simply, energy poverty keeps people poor. It is a critical piece in the mosaic of issues contributing to poverty, and often the one that is least addressed.
As I continue to research and photograph global energy poverty, I offer these stories as a contribution to the dialogue on energy’s future. While people living without electricity may seem exempt from the energy debate, their plight carries a warning for any region whose economy or energy supply lies on the brink. By examining the causes and effects of energy poverty, as well as workable solutions, this project will ask (and attempt to answer) the questions: What solutions will be made available for the energy poor? Will they be sustainable? And what does that mean for the rest of us?