Since 2010, the global population without access to electricity dropped by 400 million. However, in such a tech-driven generation, it seems shocking that 840 million people worldwide still don’t have access to electricity. Time and time again, underserved communities must deal with extremely outdated or unreliable energy infrastructure — especially power grids. And that means hundreds of millions of people are still being left in the dark across various parts of the world.
But what is the root cause of these access issues? Is it just money? To learn more about the key components of the problem and existing solutions, I chatted with Uncharted Power CEO Jessica O. Matthews.
Some of Our Energy Infrastructure “Predates the 20th Century”
According to Matthews, the biggest problem with energy deals with infrastructure. “Our energy infrastructure is not built to evolve with our world,” Matthews said. “Currently, our infrastructure is not accessible, expansive or resilient.”
Sustainability wasn’t a part of the conversation when creating these outdated energy systems. That’s why these systems are negatively impacting the environment, she added.
Back in 2017, The American Society of Civil Engineers gave energy infrastructure a D+ in their Infrastructure Report Card. In its report, the group noted that the vast majority of the American energy system “predates the turn of the 20th century.” And take in mind, this score is just for America alone, one of the most innovative nations in the world.
The main faults of infrastructure include electric transmission and distribution lines created back in the 50s and 60s that only had a 50-year life expectancy.
Climate Change Poses a Big Threat to Existing Energy Infrastructure
Another shortcoming of existing energy infrastructure is its resiliency in the face of climate change. Some main effects of climate change include rising temperatures, sea levels, and more powerful storm surges.
80% of Puerto Rico had no power after Hurricane Maria. Similarly, in Northern California, millions of residents were without electricity. This was after the power utility company Pacific Gas & Electricity cut electricity to combat last year’s devastating wildfires.
As these disasters become more frequent due to climate change, they continue to pose a threat to outdated and unsustainable energy infrastructure. With the whole world adapting and transforming in light of climate change, the energy sector will need to follow.
“Increased research and funding are essential in combating climate change because power is directly impacting our environment,” Matthews said.
“Without advances in energy efficiency, the combined ICT industries (e.g. telecom, data centers) could consume 20% of all the world’s electricity by 2025,” she added.
Decentralized Systems are Gaining Traction
Decentralized systems produce energy closer to where it’s being used. This is opposed to a centralized system, where energy is produced at a large plant and travels via a national grid.
Therefore, these systems give consumers more control over what energy they consume. Decentralized energy draws power from local energy sources. And oftentimes, local energy is renewable, which can help reduce carbon emissions.
One country already shifting towards decentralized energy is Australia. So far, renewable energy powers some 50% of the country’s grid.
And as parts of the world continue to see the increased affordability of renewable energy, others may very well follow suit.
Underserved Communities Disproportionately Affected
When it comes to keeping the lights on, this problem affects poor communities the most.
And for Matthews, this issue of energy poverty is close to home.
“While visiting my family in Nigeria, I saw first hand how a lack of power impacts your daily life. It was such a common occurrence for the power to go out, that it became second nature,” Matthews told us.
When we look specifically at America, rural and low-income Americans are hit hardest. This is because a significant portion of their monthly income goes into energy costs. Grist reported that for city residents in New Orleans, one of the least energy-efficient cities in the U.S., 20% of their income went towards energy bills. From 2000 to 2010, energy costs reportedly rose 3x the rate of rent.
Although subsidized energy efficiency upgrade programs exist, they often require high upfront costs. For low-income residents, this becomes a question of financial priorities.
As Grist also pointed out, renters are dependent on their landlords’ investment choices. If tenants are paying for their own utilities, there’s little motivation for landlords to invest in efficiency upgrades. Given that efficiency improvements often take years to yield benefits, it’s unlikely tenants will commit to these rather pricey, long-term efficiency improvements.
However, hopefully by bringing the problem of energy poverty further into the light, these issues will eventually become a thing of the past.
“When we’re looking to update the energy infrastructure, underserved communities need and deserve to have the same access to power as any other community,” Matthews said.