TECH TALK: As India Develops: Energy (Part 4)

Vijay Vaitheeswaran is The Economistss energy and environment correspondent. He has written a book Power to the People: How the Coming Energy Revolution will transform an Industry, Change our Lives, and Maybe Even Save the Planet. The book discusses the economic, political and technological forces shaping the worlds largest industry. The last chapter in the book is entitled Micropower meets Village Power. He writes:

In an age of unprecedented prosperity, it is outrageous that so many people should continue to live in such grinding poverty. Another, more selfish, reason for the rich world to care is that the energy needs of the worlds poor will unless governments intervene increasingly threaten oil resources, international trade, and global economic growthWhile those lucky enough to live in rich countries benefit from all of the mobility, warmth, and economic productivity made possible by ready access to modern energy, much of the world still uses energy more or less as mankind did thousands of years ago.

Just because the indigent are energy-poor, however, does not mean they use no energy: life would be impossible without it. What it does mean is that they use mostly noncommercial fuels, such as charcoal, crop residues, and co dung, usually in ways that are harmful to both human health and the environmentSuch inferior fuels make up a whopping 25 percent of the worlds overall energy consumption and 75 percent of all energy used by households in developing countries.

Electricity can have a dramatic impact on education and literacy, for children can study at night after that have completed their chores. Raj Pachauri of the Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI) sums it up this way: If the world is to have any hope of lifting the yoke of absolute poverty, it must provide rural villages and urban slums with far greater access to electricity and modern fuels.

While the very poorest will always need subsidies, that does not mean that there is ability to pay for energy among the worlds poor. Of the people without access to energy among the worlds poor, the World Bank estimates that half do have the ability to pay commercial rates for electricityThe crucial but often overlooked point is that there is ample evidence that the poor already do pay, often heavily, for energy services that the state fails to deliver. The amount of money spent by those dirt-poor households on inefficient, dirty ways of delivery energy such as kerosene, candle wax, and rechargeable batteries can be greater than what is spent by middle-class households or wealthy farmers on heavily subsidized grid electricity.

TERIs Pachauri thinks that helping local entrepreneurs with incentives to maintain and expand the micropower infrastructure is the keyAnd how fitting it would be if the fuel of choice were to be the lightest element of them all hydrogen.

Along with access to food, clean water and education, a continuous and reliable source of energy is what rural (and many urban) Indians need most. In India, power to the people still only means giving them the right to vote once every few years. Hopefully, by leveraging some of the new technological developments in the world of energy, we can genuinely make India a full-power country in the near future.

Tomorrow: Distribution Hubs

TECH TALK As India Develops+T

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.