Imagine living your whole life without electricity. No lights at night, no radio or television, no laptop or cell phone, to name but a few of the many things that we take for granted in our daily, hyper-linked, 21st century lives.
The often viewed satellite image of earth at night speaks volumes: a perpetual blackout is the stark reality for some two billion people -- almost a third of humanity -- who live beyond the reach of an electric power grid. These folks, most of whom live in rural villages in the developing world, are forced to retreat each evening into homes that are illuminated, if at all, by the dim light of candles or smoky, polluting kerosene lanterns.
These two billion people are being left further and further behind a divide that is polarizing humanity into a world of information haves and have-nots. And yet, information poverty is only one aspect of a condition which is even more far-reaching in its consequences: "energy poverty". Without access to electricity, it is difficult to read or study at night, to pump or purify water, to store vaccines, or to communicate with the outside world.
In the 15 years I've worked with the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), I've traveled to some of the poorest parts of the world where I have seen the devastating toll that energy poverty exacts on the health, education, and economic well-being of un-electrified households and communities.
At the same time, I've also been blessed with the opportunity to witness the incredibly positive transformation that even modest amounts of electricity can bring to rural villages, not just for basic lighting but also to provide essential power for schools, clinics, water pumping systems, microenterprise centers, and WiFi-enabled Internet kiosks.
Sadly, energy's role in development has often been overlooked. Case in point: universal access to energy was not included as a Millennium Development Goal (MDG) despite the fact that without an effective energy strategy none of the MDGs are ultimately achievable.
The good news is that energy poverty is finally starting to gain the attention it deserves. Tom Friedman, in his latest book Hot Flat and Crowded, devotes an entire chapter to the subject, and last month, I was honored to receive the King Hussein Leadership Prize for the work I've facilitated in bringing solar power to some of the poorest, most marginalized parts of the world.
Presenting the award, Her Majesty Queen Noor said, "SELF, working at the intersection of environmental stewardship and sustainable human development, helps whole villages leapfrog from no reliable energy to affordable green power that in turn provides access to other basic rights - clean water, education, healthcare, and economic empowerment."
Her Majesty further added, "True peace and security will never be won through military force. They will only be achieved to the degree that we can address the human realities of poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation that underlie so much of the instability in the world."
I couldn't agree more. In affirming SELF's mission, the King Hussein Foundation has made a powerful statement which underscores the critical role that clean, renewable energy can play in addressing climate change and combating extreme poverty, and ultimately, in making the world more equitable, peaceful, and secure.
It's not likely that grid electricity will ever reach all of the two billion people on the planet who are living in darkness. But that's alright. Rural villages can now bypass the age of fossil fuels and catapult themselves into a bright, sustainable, carbon-free future by tapping directly into the ultimate form of distributed power - the sun.