THE BLOG

Powering Change for the Urban Poor: 'Devils' and Coin-Operated Electricity for Slum Dwellers

01/24/2013 05:48 pm ET | Updated Mar 26, 2013

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Seventy-nine percent of people living in developing countries don't have access to electricity. Of those who do, many acquire it illegally, leading to financial, legal and safety issues. Sustainable, plentiful and affordable energy is a global issue, but it reaches even greater importance in the developing world, where the question of affordability is critical. Programs working on energy in the context of informal urban communities often offer ways to provide electricity in slums, or focus on giving the poor incentives to obtain power legally. Read on for six examples from Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, Nairobi, Mumbai and Jakarta.

In Mumbai, many slum areas have access to electricity, but the illegal connections come through middlemen who charge exorbitant rates, leaving many in the dark for many hours of the day. A group of college students heard about a simple, affordable lighting solution being experimented with in other parts of the world and decided to test it in Mumbai's slums. The idea is to take 1.5 liter plastic bottles, fill them with water and bleach and then seal the container with glue to secure the elements inside. The students then hoist the bottles from a hole they drill in shack rooftops so that the bottle is half inside and half outside. The principles of refraction of light allow sunlight, as it passes through the bottle, to illuminate the inside of the houses. As long as the sun is out -- in Mumbai, nearly the entire year -- the homes will have full days of free light. While this solution is not the full answer to electrification in slums, this innovative approach is quick, low-cost, and environmentally friendly.

In Jakarta, street vendors use illegal and dangerous electricity connections when working at night. The state electricity company is piloting a new program where street vendors can buy small, affordable amounts of electricity through a coin-operated device. For 1,000 Indonesian Rupiah (about USD $0.10), consumers receive 900 watts of power for 30 minutes. When they run out, they can insert another coin, like using a pay phone. Although the program is in its beginning phases, it holds much promise in encouraging street vendors to use safe and legal electricity connections.

Energy theft is a huge issue in Mexico City, resulting in losses of nine billion pesos a year. Electricity is stolen and re-sold by informal electricity merchandisers, known as diablitos, or "devils." The state electricity department has launched a project to disconnect illegal electrical installations, and replace them with regular power outlets. However, the diablitos are resisting this transition to paying the full commercial rate, and have been reconnecting illegally. The federal government runs another program that gives households living in poverty 50 pesos (about USD $4) every two months to pay for electricity bills. Although this program is not intended for commercial activity, it is an example of an initiative that could support and encourage the diablitos in their regularization process.

Rio de Janeiro has achieved good coverage of basic services, but the next big challenges include affordability, and incentivizing low-income families to "go legal" and pay for their services. The federal government recently launched a subsidy to offer low-income families discounted electricity bills. Families earning up to half of the monthly minimum wage are eligible for a discount ranging from 10 to 65 percent of their bill, depending on their level of consumption. Around 150,000 families already benefit from this subsidy, but there are an estimated 250,000 more eligible families who do not. Progress remains to be made, but Rio is well on its way to expanding affordable electricity and reducing illegal connections.

Lagos' power outages are widespread and consistent, prompting the launch of a new waste-to-energy initiative. Waste is stored and then heated; the heat boils the water, which powers a turbine that in turn produces electricity. This initiative produces clean energy with reduced greenhouse gas emissions, supports the recycling of waste and provides an energy alternative instead of consistent shortages.

Another sustainable alternative exists in Nairobi: a small enterprise has pioneered the technique of converting discarded or unusable charcoal waste into fuel briquettes from raw materials sourced from local dealers and retailers. However, as they are made from recycled materials, they are inevitably more expensive than those made from unlicensed charcoal. Unless the government forces compliance with environmental laws, it will be impossible to make them cheap enough for domestic consumption at the lower end of the market.

Water and bleach. Coin-operated devices. Government subsidies. Waste-to-energy initiatives. Do you know of other ways to deliver electricity to the urban poor? Have you heard of other solutions? Please join the conversation about energy and informality on urb.im, the global community for just and inclusive cities.