Kerosene lamps, such as this one, are used widely for illumination in eastern Africa, but contribute to numerous health and economic problems (Source: Firesika).

The United Nations recently declared the beginning of the Decade of Sustainable Energy for All, continuing the focus on energy access that it began in 2012 with the Year of Sustainable Energy for All. Energy access is widely recognized as a key component of achieving the Millennium Development Goals set out by the United Nations, with impacts on the improvement of health, education, and economic development.

This international focus on energy access stems from the fact that, in many developing areas of the world, energy use is still mostly limited to traditional biomass use (i.e. burning wood for cook fires) and kerosene for lighting, with extremely limited or zero access to modern energy services. In Ethiopia, only 2 percent of the population in rural areas has access to electricity. In Kenya, the inhabitants of remote areas are only slightly better off, with 4 percent electrification rate for the rural population.

However, the use of kerosene for illumination brings with it numerous health, environmental, economic and social problems.  Indoor use of the fuel use significantly deteriorates air quality in homes, leading directly to respiratory illnesses and fatalities. And, as if chronic illnesses are not enough, the risk of fire from overturned kerosene lamps is extremely high. In an interview with an in-country energy expert in Kenya, Worldwatch learned that estimates ranged between 6,000 and 12,000 deaths per year from kerosene fires in Kenya alone, with many of them being children. Overturned kerosene lamps are known to ignite homes quickly and the impacts disproportionately affect women and children, who spend much more of their time within the house.

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Africa, developing countries, development, distributed generation, electricity, Energy Access, Ethiopia, Kenya, kerosene, rural electrification, sub-Saharan Africa

In sub-Saharan Africa, seven out of ten people lack reliable access to electricy. Energy poverty reduces the      quality of education, contributes to illness and disease, and severely hinders economic growth. Building a clean-energy future is a crucial first step to sustainable development. On a national level, unreliable energy systems cost economies one to two percent of their growth potential annually due to outages and the inefficient usage of already scarce resources. On an individual level, a lack of electricity makes it more difficult to increase literacy rates and expand access to clean cooking fuels.

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Energy officials in Rwanda and Nigeria – two countries that have demonstrated remarkable economic growth in recent years, but still rely heavily upon expensive and dirty fossil fuels – have expressed interest in bringing Worldwatch’s Sustainable Energy Roadmaps to their own countries. Investment in renewable energy and efficient electricity delivery systems will help these countries reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, give marginalized people access to modern energy services, reduce electricity prices, create jobs, and improve health and education services.

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developing countries, development, electricity, energy, Energy Access, energy poverty, Nigeria, Rwanda, sub-Saharan Africa, sustainable development

At the close of a summer in which environmental news was dominated largely by record temperatures, devastating drought in the U.S. Midwest, and lackluster progress at the Rio+20 summit, reasons for optimism can seem few and far between. But in two seemingly unlikely places—countries commonly (though simplistically) associated with poverty, ecological disaster, and violence—renewable energy projects are demonstrating their ability not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but to power economic and social recovery.

Solar panels stacked on the roof of Mirebalais National Teaching Hospital. (Source: Partners in Health)

In both Haiti and Rwanda, recent stories of progress and achievement reveal how renewables are powering national development from the ground up.

Haiti: Building back better

In the wake of Haiti’s disastrous 2010 earthquake, which thrust the country once more into the international spotlight as tragic victim, the Haitian government and international organizations voiced the intention to “build back better.” The goal was to ensure that the post-earthquake rebuilding process focused not only on reconstructing fallen buildings, but on making sure that the country as a whole became more resilient.

According to the Haiti Regeneration Initiative, Haiti currently faces four major challenges: post-earthquake recovery and reconstruction; economic and social development; environmental stabilization and restoration; and increasing resilience against future hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, and economic shocks. A crucial element for achieving all four of these goals is the extension of affordable, reliable, and sustainable electricity services.

The Haitian government recognizes the importance of electricity access. In January 2012, the government launched the Ban m limyè, Ban m lavi” (“Give me light, give me life”) program, an ambitious plan to extend electricity access to 200,000 rural households over the next two years. The program demonstrates an explicit commitment to making rural electrification a central component of the country’s broader development strategy.

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developing countries, development, energy, Haiti, renewable energy, Rwanda, solar power, sub-Saharan Africa

In early January, thousands of Nigerians took to the streets in what has been dubbed Occupy Nigeria. However, unlike the Occupy movement in the United States, Occupy Nigeria was spurred on by one issue: the government’s decision to reduce fossil fuel subsidies. Overnight, gas prices in Nigeria more than doubled as a result of the government’s new policy. The government argues that it is bringing gas prices closer to the global market price, but the price increase has caused significant economic hardship.

Globally, advocates of renewable energy have called for the reduction of fossil fuel subsidies in order to make alternative technologies more competitive. If fossil fuel consumption subsidies were phased out by 2020, energy demand would be reduced by 4.1 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 4.7 percent due to increased energy conservation and development of renewable resources. Furthermore, these subsidies tend to be regressive by benefiting more affluent populations globally, with only 9 percent of electricity subsidies going to the poorest 20 percent of the population.

An Occupy Nigeria rally in Ojota (Source: Flickr - Temi Kogbe)

By raising the end-user price of fossil fuels to market prices, countries can discourage inefficient industry and promote renewable energy projects and green jobs. In 2009, the G-20, recognizing their negative environmental impacts, pledged to eliminate or rationalize all inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. No country has begun cutting subsidies as a result of this pledge, however, partly because popular pressure and differing conceptions of subsidies.

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Climate Change, energy policy, G-20, Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa, subsidies