27 September 2013 – For 550 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, out of a global total of 1.3 billion such affected people, much of life stops after dark, in that there is no light by which to work or undertake recreational activities. What light they have comes mostly from the sources humans have used through the ages, firewood, charcoal or dung. The resulting smoke turns into indoor pollution that contributes to more than 3.5 million deaths a year.

Energy poverty is connected to other problems, and according to an article in Time Magazine, 90% of children in sub-Saharan Africa go to primary schools that lack electricity. Economic growth is stunted as a result, and 60% of African businesses cite access to reliable power as a constraint to their doing business.

Just to get all of sub-Saharan Africa, a region that generations about as much electricity as Spain, up to levels that comparatively well off South Africa enjoys would require 330 GW of new capacity. The World Bank estimates that it would take US$1 trillion a year in global investment to eliminate energy poverty by 2030, more than twice what is being currently spent. And even that level of investment would guarantee the poorest of the poor only enough electricity to run a floor fan, a mobile phone and two compact fluorescent lights for five hours a day.

Much of Africa can be supplied by renewable energy sources, especially rural areas beyond the reach of any grid. However, the fastest population growth is taking place in the world’s growing urban areas, which will eventually need the same reliable grid electricity that developed world cities enjoy. Some of that electricity will be generated by fossil fuels, including coal.

The result may be an increase in greenhouse gases, but given that the average person in much of sub-Saharan Africa emits less than 1% of the carbon compared with the average American, Africans should hardly feel climate related guilt. For those who live in darkness, electricity by nearly any means will be worth the price.