“Energy is a human right.” We use the phrase daily at the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), a Washington, DC – based nonprofit organization whose mission is to bring solar power to rural and remote villages in the developing world.
But what does the phrase really mean? After all, people talk about human rights; they talk about social and economic rights; and some folks—like Dr. Paul Farmer, famed “physician to the poor” and co-founder of Partners In Health—even talk about health as a human right.
But “energy” as human right? Now that’s a new one!
It’s precisely because this notion of “energy as a human right” may strike many as being a bit odd or abstruse that I’ve decided the time has finally come for me to sit down and start this blog as a way to educate as many people as I can about a subject I care deeply about and which has huge implications for the future sustainability of the planet.
I’m talking about the fact that some two billion people—almost a third of humanity—still live without access to electricity. Located mostly in rural villages in the developing world, these people are forced to retreat each evening into homes that are illuminated, if at all, by the dim light of candles or smoky, polluting kerosene lanterns.
The problem is especially acute in Sub-Saharan Africa, where in many countries as much as 80-90% of the population is without power. If you look at a satellite image of the earth at night, Africa is almost entirely shrouded in darkness.
This is an issue in which I have been personally involved for the past 15 years, ever since I first got involved with SELF.
At the time, I was living and working in Taiwan. I had read about China’s first “solar village”, a tiny hamlet in the hard-scrabble mountains of Gansu Province. I wrote to SELF and requested to visit Gansu, and perhaps write a story about how solar energy had impacted the lives of those poor farmers who had been living in darkness for centuries.
One thing led to the next, and before I knew it, I was hired to spend two months in Gansu, overseeing the solar household lighting initiative that had been launched by SELF, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the W. Alton Jones Foundation.
There, in this isolated, underserved corner of China, I got to observe families turn on a light bulb for the very first time in their lives.
The following passage is an excerpt of a letter from a farmer who had just installed a solar home system:
As the fixtures were about to be plugged in, we waited breathlessly. In a flash, the lights came on, and as they did, an old man from the village rubbed his eyes in disbelief, and exclaimed, “I have long heard that city folks do not need oil to generate light, but in all my seventy years, this is the first time to actually see such a phenomenon with my own eyes. What a beautiful sight to behold!”
Over the course of the next decade and a half, in my work with SELF, I have witnessed, in village after village, the heavy toll that “energy poverty” exacts on the health, education, and livelihoods of people who do not have access to electricity.
I have also been fortunate enough to see and document the numerous benefits that even modest amounts of electricity, generated by the sun, can deliver to previously unelectrified households and communities.
The purpose of this blog is twofold: first, to inform and educate the general public about energy poverty and its deep relevance to virtually every aspect of sustainable development; and second, to chronicle the many examples of how solar energy has been, and continues to be, harnessed for improvements in the health, education, and economic well-being of rural villagers who have, for far too long, been deprived of what should be a sine qua non of modern life in the 21st century.