Imagine life without electricity. With no lights, electric stove, or water pump, you must travel miles to fetch water and firewood, running a particular risk of attack if you are a girl or a woman. At home, you cook over a smoky stove or an open fire, raising your odds of getting lung and heart disease. If you are pregnant, you may die in the dark, giving birth at a clinic that lacks air conditioning and modern medical equipment. Without vaccines, which require refrigeration, your children remain vulnerable to deadly diseases. At night, they study by the light of a kerosene lamp, which causes burns when the fuel spills. Earning a living isn’t easy, either. No electricity means no sewing machines or rice mills, no pumps for irrigating crops, and no way to keep drinks cold or keep a store open at night. The lack of power keeps away bigger companies that might have hired you.
Such is the plight of nearly half of the world’s population. Some two billion people lack electricity outright or have poor-quality service, and nearly three billion rely on dirty fuels, such as firewood and animal dung, for cooking and heating. Nearly 90 percent of those suffering from energy poverty, as the problem is known, can be found in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In Liberia, to take one of the most extreme cases, just two percent of the population has regular access to electricity. And in Tanzania, nearly 50 percent of firms say that poor electricity service is a major constraint for doing business. They face an average of nearly nine power outages every month, leading to lost sales and poor productivity. In this area, the disparity between the developing world and the developed world could hardly be greater: the average American uses about 50 times as much power as the average Bangladeshi and about 100 times as much as the average Nigerian.
The problem has proved stubbornly persistent. Data from the World Bank show that although 1.7
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