Empowering the Rural

Picture this: You wake up in the morning – it’s still dark out. You have to get up for work. You rub your eyes too hard, yawn really big, flop over on your side in defiance of actually putting your feet on the cold ground, sigh a little bit (or wail a lot, if you’re me), then, finally, you get up. Your feet feel a little tingly as the nerves in them go through the same above-mentioned process and get re-accustomed to bearing your weight. You swing your hand up to flick on the light switch. Here’s where you discover something is…uh…off – you’re still in the dark.

This is a reality for many people who live in rural and developing areas of the world. Many developing nations have electrical grid connections; however it is often only available for a few hours per day. And, when it is available, there is frequently not enough of it. It’s unreliable and frustrating. As a result, people in developing nations make use of kerosene lanterns, diesel generators, firewood and other power alternatives which end up exposing them to dangerous toxins, such as everyone’s favourite: colourless, odourless and tasteless carbon monoxide. In India, about 40% of the rural households do not have access to an electric grid and more than 85% of those dwellings rely on the methods listed above. Remember how many people live in India – over 1 billion? Those percentages I just mentioned break down into some massive numbers. Even more striking? The World Health Organization reports that over half of the world’s population relies on solid, air-polluting fuels to generate energy, which results in over 1.6 million deaths per year. That’s around 5000 per day. I suddenly feel as though I owe my light switch, and my circumstances, a big thank you.

What can be done? Well, a two birds/one stone approach has been suggested by researchers at the University of California (UC), Berkley. They spent some time analyzing an energy efficiency initiative in rural Nicaragua and found that “…there are cost effective steps developing nations can take to reduce carbon emissions and at the same time help the rural poor reduce their energy expenses.” That sounds pretty good all around, am I right?

Here’s the story: The Nicaraguan government, along with a U.S. based non-profit called blueEnergy, were able to effectively reduce carbon emissions for 172 homes in two small ‘off-the-grid’ villages on the Nicaraguan coast. These villages get their electricity from diesel generators and instead of being billed on the amount of energy used, they were billed in accordance with the number and type of appliances they owned. The researchers found that this resulted in indiscriminate energy use, kind of like open bars at weddings – no need to hold back when you’re not paying by the ounce! The citizens would leave lights, radios and appliances on without regard for the air pollution that the generators were emitting or the electricity and money that were being wasted in the process.

The researchers found that when the government installed meters to track energy use, the usage itself dropped by 28% (!), followed shortly thereafter by a drop in energy bills (!!). Villagers were also offered compact fluorescent light bulbs in exchange for the ol’ incandescent bulbs with which we’re all familiar. Guess what happened? Another 17% drop in energy use (!!!). I can smell the cleaner air already…

What were the final results overall? Less diesel was burned even after allowing for 2 extra hours of generator run time provided to customers due to the reduced energy demand. That means less harmful carbon emissions being released into the atmosphere and, on a smaller but equally important scale, less poison reaching the lungs of the villagers. And, on the financial front, there was a 37% drop in the electricity bills of the villagers in the months following the study. Win/win, non?

It’s not difficult to figure out why having access to renewable and efficient electricity is essential for a nation’s people to be in a position to set themselves up for success. Renewable, cheap electricity provides for essential services such as education, healthcare, clean water and safe food sources. It can help stimulate social, environmental and economic development in places that are not only capable of greatness, but are desperate for the opportunity.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in developed nations, where electricity is literally at our fingertips, could learn something from studies such as the one described above. We could all replace our incandescent bulbs with fluorescents; we could turn our appliances and lights off when they’re not in use. We could learn to hold energy efficiency in the forefront of our minds. I guarantee that’s where it lies in the minds of those who’s rooms don’t light up in the morning when they flick on their switches.

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