Page last updated at 15:54 GMT, Tuesday, 12 May 2009 16:54 UK

Powering our way out of poverty

Harish Hande
Harish Hande

As we reach the end of the first decade in the 21st Century, about one third of the world's population still has no access to electricity, says Harish Hande. In this week's Green Room, he argues that poor people should be at the centre of sustainable energy policies, not on the end of handouts.

School children in a classroom fitted with solar-powered lighting (Image: Selco Solar)
Many assume that renewable energies like solar electricity are too expensive for the poor

As the world's leaders consider how to finance our battle against climate change, the financing of practical, affordable solutions for poor people in countries like my own, India, appears to be of little interest.

It is nearly 130 years since Thomas Edison gave us the electric bulb, yet more than two billion people on this planet still do not have the luxury of electricity.

Up to 50% of households in India still have no access to modern lighting. Millions of street vendors, whether in the hi-tech city of Bangalore, India, or Kampala, Uganda, still resort to kerosene or candles to sell their meagre wares.

Today, one of the greatest threats to the environment is poverty. Can we go and tell a poor woman in a rural part of a developing country not to cut wood or stop using kerosene for her lighting because it leads to global warming? Does she have a choice?

We've invented iPods and flat-screen TVs, but somehow have not invested in ways to eliminate an Iron Age technology that consumes wood inefficiently and creates harmful indoor air pollution.

Millions of poor households around the world use the classic three-stone cooker to prepare their food, while using wood as the basic fuel.

Millions of trees have to be cut to meet the cooking needs of the poor; for lighting, millions of litres of kerosene are burnt daily. Yet, in this lopsided world, we are spending millions of dollars on finding solutions for the problems created in the West while the poor in developing countries have no choice but to keep harming the environment.

Cheap and continuous

Solutions do exist. Many assume that renewable energies like solar electricity are too expensive for the poor.

Photo votaic panels (Image: Selco Solar)
Solar power gives remote villages access to clean electricity

True, solar panels alone may be "expensive" but if they are combined with affordable financing mechanisms for the poor, they can be rolled out widely and make clean electricity a sustainable and viable option for millions around the developing world.

The poor spend between 10-15% of their meagre income on energy services like lighting and cooking.

This is a much higher percentage than those people who are better off. For example, a typical street vendor in Bangalore pays 15 rupees ($0.32) for four hours of kerosene lighting each day.

On a monthly basis, she therefore pays $9-10 to light her street cart. Today, solar lighting can be provided to her at commercial rates for $5-6 every a month.

The big bonus is that the vendor is able to pay for it on a daily basis, not on a monthly basis. As one street vendor told me: "300 rupees a month is expensive but 10 rupees a day is very affordable."

Much attention has gone in to reducing the cost of the technology, but much less on the details of supply chains and financing.

This would make technologies like solar, bio-gas and small-hydro affordable today, not tomorrow, to the poor.

Girl studying (Image: Selco Solar)
Clean and cheap electricity has social benefits as well as environmental ones

Sustainable forms of energy can also play a key role in income generation - a primary path out of poverty for the millions who do not have access to reliable grid-distributed electricity.

The poor are also victims of inefficiency - they use inefficient sewing machines, bangle making machines and power looms. This results in soaring overall costs.

The blame is placed on renewable energy technologies, not inefficiencies of the appliances.

Many of these devices are produced with the assumption that grid electricity is "infinite" so, especially in the developing world, there is little incentive to make more efficient products.

High-efficiency income-generating appliances would increase the attractiveness of renewable energy technologies - leading to higher incomes.

Solutions are simple and do-able, but require approaches that are focused on the poor.

Many of the policies, products (both financial and technology) and processes are designed with a top to bottom approach.

This can completely bypass the needs of the poor. Technology is pushed down with disastrous consequences; many solar systems used in the rural areas of India do not work well, creating a notion that renewable energies are not reliable.

Clean cooking solutions have been created but with the idea that one size fits all, without considering the different fuel sources, food choices, cooking styles, or the size of the family.

It's high time that the poor become central to energy policies and not just recipients or "project beneficiaries".

Only then will sustainable energy be their ticket out of poverty, as well as a vital way to address climate change.

Harish Hande is managing director of Selco Solar, India

Selco Solar was the 2007 winner of the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy

Do you agree with Harish Hande? Are the needs of poor communities overlooked when energy policies are decided? Is it wrong that people in the 21st Century do not have access to electricity? Will solving developing nations' energy needs help tackle climate change?

I agree with Harish Hande. Solar ovens are cheap and relatively simple devices that could be distributed widely (although they would mean cooking during the day, the energy used to reheat food would be much less than cooking from scratch) Also the "banana briquettes" Nottingham University have come up with is an extrememly promising idea. On a larger scale, we should be building solar farms to electrolyse water (sea or brackish water preferably) to produce hydrogen which can be exported. The addition of a fuel cell for local power needs would also produce heat and pure water as waste products for the benefit of the local community. But I can't see the "illuminati" going for it.
Peter, london

I totally agree with Harish Hande. Many alternative technologies already exist that are aimed at helping the poor in developing countries to become more energy efficient and provide them with a better quality of life. One only has to look at the winners of the Ashden Awards over the years to make a long list of these. If the First World is serious about combatting climate change, one of the things it could do is to provide the finance to make these technologies accessible to those who need them, whose lives would be made better by having them and whose use of them would make a significant contribution to the battle against environmental degradation and climate change.
Paul Edwards, Sandford, Devon, UK

These are all very good points and another point I was reading about today is that the poorest of this world, mainly in Africa, need education and support and that can easily be provided through radio, but batteries or grid electricity is usually not available. A simple wind-up radio is the answer for many who are eager to learn. Also a similar device with LED lights can help them after sunset. Another great tool is a pedal power device to recharge low voltage equipment such as cell phones. It can also be used as a micro-business to generate some income, again in remote areas with no electricity. All these little things can provide free energy to the poorest of the poor, and free sustainable energy means a lot when you have nothing.
Vincent, Nanoose Bay, Canada

i agree with Harish Hande, for some reason and for some period, poor people actually been overlooked for a while, but right now, we reach a agreement that it is the poor people want to harm the enviornment it is they have no other choice not to. The large amount of output of energy helping devices is definitely helpful for those poverty striken area. Give them the most direct help is alway a good way for helping. Rich countries' help is definitely needed. I think Poverty was largely result in short of Education and resources, Let us try our best to meet those gap by doing something that we can actually do to help them.
Carrie Zang, China,Beijing

Well I agree with Mr Hande, it make sense. We used to have that problem as well, poor people was unable to reach electricity, nowadays that problem has been solved and we have like a hundred more problems to overcome. But here was easier to figure out a solution, because of the region size (little one). Keep it up, help your people. Regards from the other side of the world.
Joseph, Central America/El Salvador

I care and would love to help make a change for the poor.
May Noble, Erith

I agree with the article completely. Renewable energy should not be considered as 'expensive' - it pays for itself by generating a free source of energy, therefore it is not expensive. It is only labelled as 'expensive' by those who have a vested interest in keeping us consuming fossil fuels on a centralised grid. Also if we invested in manufacture of renewables particularly in developing countries, the price would come down and create a virtuous cycle.
Helena, UK

I'd like to see a new era of international cooperation take root, not so much to promote economic growth as to support new enterprises the best of which branch and are replicated when they reach a certain size which maximizes benefits to people and the planet's health. Key to that is promoting use of electricity and the spectacular variety of its uses and potential. The areas that fascinate me most at the moment are bio-electric power generation and transfer of solar generation potential from space to ground use. Once the skies clear of haze potential for solar generation will increase as well. In a way some of the less developed nations of the world may have an advantage because they can adopt new technology without having those around who defend old ways of power generation such as coal fired power plants. Cities and nations can share the best business models and technology from renewable energy and environmentally friendly business incubators so sister cities in less deve!

loped parts of the World can create local jobs that benefit the people and the Earth. One of the ways the world banking system could help would be to help fund a buy back program for outdated power generation systems so early adopters of new technology would not be at a disadvantage.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado, USA

I thoroughly agree with Harish. For years I have had the vision that developing countries should avoid making the same mistakes we have made in the past in developed countries, that is to develop their technological and social and business advancements using the same energy inefficient, carbon wasteful technologies. Instead I have hoped for years that developing countries can progress by going straight into advanced, energy efficient and carbon low technologies and I am extremely frustrated with the ways in which general society does not seem to care about the struggles going on "over there, where its not my problem". We need to start caring, after all, the more educated and able we make our developing communities the more they can give back in working to improve technology, minimise climate change and development of their own economies and efficient businesses. Its time we in the west stopped thinking only of ourselves.
Jennifer Austin, Winchester

If world has to fight global warming, we need to focus on how we can save our green forest & cutting of trees. This is possible only if we make available economical non conventional energy sources & appliances made available to every poor rural family.
Shridhar M. Koparkar., Thane/India

The suggested focus shift will help devise technology solutions that are more consumer friendly, while the financing options need to be poor-friedly.Developing country needs may be mass scale, but developed countries too need to conserve, towards net eco-improvements.

A more mass level orientation would lead to better adaptation, and a class level involvement would help accelerate its implementation. May both happen concurrently, we hope to see much improved results.
dr arun varma, Mumbai, india

I agree with you that access to electricity and climate change mitigation may have joint solutions that solve both problems.

But i disagree with your statement blaming only the developed nations and not attributing any blame to the effected country.

If we take India as an example. You rightly point out that electrification in India is about 50%. Based on current populations, that means about 25% of the world's 2 billion people without electricity can be attributed to India. If India had followed the example of China which focused their development efforts to the electrification of their country, China has electrification approaching 80%, then India would have been in a far better position than it is in today. As i am sure you are aware electricfication is tantamaount to ecomomic growth and poverty reduction, why has India not planned or achieved more? I understand that India started their "Industrial Revolution" after China and so cannot directly be compared. I also acknowledge that the issue of illegal stealing of electricity is a problem as it dissuades the owners or potential owners of the power generation capacity. But having worked in India, i can't help worry that India will be unable to follow in China's footsteps and achieve similar electrification and poverty allieviation.
Nick, UK

"Are the needs of poor communities overlooked when energy policies are decided?"

Of course they're ignored, how can anyone sell them energy (green or otherwise) if they have no money? Also why do the poor need to build infrastructure to light a market stall with solar power. I can buy a cheap but robust set of 8 solar powered driveway lamps for $25AU, each $4-5 lamp puts out a similar amount of light to a kero lamp and a full charge will last about 10hrs (would need an on/off switch to be usefull in the early morning. All 8 of mine are still working after spending a maintenance free year on the front lawn. The irony here is the solar lamps and their components are probably made for a tenth of what I paid by chinese peasants living in similar circumstances to the Indian's in the article. $4-5 lamp is a months worth of kero for the peasant but I belive there is a successfull bank offering micro-loans in india. Pay the 10R/day for a month and then get "free" light for years.
Alan, Melbourne Australia

Having lived in Nepal for 8 yrs I totally agree that the poor are left out. I suffered from a grid that is fed by hydro but the power lines are knocked down at least once each monsoon. I think local solar would mean that very remote villages could get power. But Nepal is focused on hydro - a lot of which is sold to India!

I also agree that most appliances should be designed to reduce power usage, including mobile phones and computers so that as poor areas do get power they can use communication technology as well!
Lois, Surkhet, Nepal

Oh lovely, another naive, out-of-touch article trying to foist expensive alternative technology on the poor.

Let's have a reality check here: the reason these people are not using renewable power sources is that they have better things to think about (read: survival) than worrying if their coal power plant is generating pollution. Renewable energy sources, like solar power, are expensive and generate very little power compared to other power sources. For example, the cost of powering a single home in the US with solar power is comparable to a second mortgage -- and that is during the summer. While the power needs in poorer nations are less, the scale is roughly the same. Are we to suddenly expect that these people will choose to defer to expensive, low-power, renewable energy sources when less expensive solutions are available from China or other places? Do you think they will care that the power plant is pumping out somewhat more pollution, when the cities are already polluted? At least people can enjoy having the power rather than think about whether they will be one of th!

e select few who get to have some panels out on the top of the shack they live on.

Spending (wasting) money on such lofty endeavors as renewable energy sources simply ends up benefiting far fewer people overall. It's like the one-laptop-per-child programs where, rather than investing the money on widespread sanitation programs that would benefit large communities, a few select individuals or classrooms get to use the West's newfangled "pet-project" technologies.
Chris C, Salt Lake City, USA

Yes, I am fully agreed with Mr.Harish Hande. India is a country where tremendous solar energy is available; still solar energy remained untapped because of non availability of technology which can provide cheaper options. Existing solar equipments and technologies need promotion to create an atmosphere for solar energy research. The research on solar energy must be emphasized. Reasonable mandatory targets may be fixed for the research institutes, to enhance the research on the solar energy. But, there is definitely a need to push the existing solar equipments to create an environment for the generation of the new solar technology. Adopting existing solar energy technologies and equipments definitely reduce the burden on the forest and the climate.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India

This is a good idea that has always been put forward, however if this were to be implemented then the balance of dependancy\ power and control would change. The so called providers who are happier keeping the poor, poor and dependant, would need to change their existing money making models, which they no doubt will. Untill a clear case of profitablity from such enterprise can be established this is but a dream. One out the reach of the poor and to far out of the box to consider by the save the planet money men.
raj, london

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific