Photograph by Ed Kashi, National Geographic

Read Caption

A woman dries cassava paste by a natural gas flare in Nigeria. Millions of people in Nigeria lack access to modern energy, even though the African nation is a major oil producer.

Photograph by Ed Kashi, National Geographic

Five Surprising Facts About Energy Poverty

Business as usual "will not remotely suffice" to meet goals of clean and universal energy, says a World Bank-led report.

The world needs to double or triple its current spending—estimated at about $400 billion a year—to meet the United Nations' goal of bringing clean and modern electricity to all people by 2030, says a new report by a wide group of international agencies led by the World Bank.

Although nations are succeeding in bringing power to more people, those efforts have barely kept pace with population growth over the past two decades, said the report, released Tuesday in Vienna. As a result, about 1.2 billion people—nearly as many as the entire population of India—still live without access to electricity, while 2.8 billion people rely on wood, crop waste, dung, and other biomass to cook and heat their homes. Unless the world addresses the widespread problem of energy poverty, the World Bank said, other efforts at economic development are likely to fall short. (See related story: "The Solvable Problem of Energy Poverty.")

"Access to energy is absolutely fundamental in the struggle against poverty," said World Bank Vice President Rachel Kyte. "It is energy that lights the lamp that lets you do your homework, that keeps the heat on in a hospital, that lights the small businesses where most people work. Without energy, there is no economic growth, there is no dynamism, and there is no opportunity."

The report provides the hard numbers detailing the extent of the problem that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is seeking to tackle in the UN's two-year-old Sustainable Energy for All initiative. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim serves as cochair of the advisory board in that effort. Its goal is to provide universal access to electricity, while doubling both the world's share of renewable energy and its pace in improving energy efficiency.

Richenda van Leeuwan, executive director of the nonprofit United Nations Foundation's energy access initiative, one of 15 international groups that partnered in developing the report and accompanying framework for measuring progress, says the data is "a critical step forward" in the effort to address the problem. "It is impossible to determine how we are doing in the absence of a measurement mechanism," she said. "Having credible data is key to being able to determine and report back on where we are—as a world—in achieving these common goals, and where efforts need to be redoubled."

Here are a few of the significant findings of the report:

Huge Progress Undercut by Population Growth

The effort to tackle energy poverty may look as if it has been at a standstill because estimates of the number of people without electricity have barely changed for years. In fact, electricity has been extended to 1.7 billion more people between 1990 and 2010, and 1.6 billion people gained access to cleaner cooking fuels. But world population grew 1.6 billion over that same period, with high growth in regions with poor energy access—a problem concentrated in about 20 countries in Asia and Africa. The World Bank report said the pace of expansion would have to double to meet the 100 percent energy access target by 2030.

Fastest-Moving Countries Still Have Largest Problem

No country has moved as quickly as India to deliver electricity to more people, extending the reach of its grid to an average 24 million more people each year since 1990. And China by far has achieved more than any other nation in energy efficiency, yielding savings that add up over the past 20 years to an amount equal to the energy China used over that same time frame. Yet both nations still face the world's greatest energy poverty challenges. India has 306.2 million people without electricity, and 705 million people who rely on wood and biomass for cooking. In China, 612.8 million people—nearly twice the population of the United States—lack clean fuel for cooking and heating. (See related story: "India Power Outage Spotlights Energy Planning Failure.")

Cooking Smoke Kills

About 3.5 million people, mainly women and children, die each year from respiratory illness due to harmful indoor air pollution from wood and biomass cookstoves. That's more than double the annual deaths attributed either to malaria (1.2 million) or to HIV/AIDS (1.5 million). (See related blog: "Cookstove Smoke is 'Largest Environmental Threat.'") In the past, international health and energy authorities looked to kerosene as a cleaner alternative, but the World Bank report pointed out that recent scientific study confirms that kerosene can emit troubling amounts of health-damaging pollutants, while posing a major burn and poisoning risk. For tracking progress in the Sustainable Energy for All initiative, the report recommended that kerosene cookstoves be considered a low level of basic access; more preferable are alternatives such as biogas, liquid petroleum gas (propane), electricity, and natural gas. (See also: "Protecting Health and the Planet With Clean Cookstoves.")

Energy Scarcity in the Shadow of Plenty

Some energy-producing countries are failing to deliver fuel or power to their own people. Nigeria, the largest oil-producing country in Africa, is second only to India in the number of people living without electricity: 82.4 million. Another 117.8 million Nigerians rely on wood and biomass for cooking, even though the nation is sitting on the largest known natural gas reserves on the continent. Without infrastructure for gathering or delivering natural gas (which could be used for cooking or generating electricity), much of the natural gas produced in oil fields is flared off. Another energy producer with widespread energy poverty is Indonesia. Though it is the world's largest exporter of coal by weight, and was the eighth largest exporter of natural gas in 2011, Indonesia nonetheless is home to 131.2 million people who rely on wood and biomass cookstoves.

Sobering Picture on Rapid Renewable Growth

Even though worldwide wind power has grown at an average rate of 25 percent and solar energy at a rate of 11.4 percent since 1990, those two forms of renewable energy—along with geothermal, waste, and marine energy—contribute barely 1 percent of global energy consumption, the World Bank Report said. Instead, 80 percent of all renewable energy generated comes from hydropower. Burning of wood and biomass also account for a large share, even though the environmental sustainability of those practices is questionable. The UN's Sustainable Energy for All initiative relies on large growth of renewable energy and energy efficiency, so the world can extend access to power without worsening climate change. The World Bank report said renewables, including hydro and biofuel, now make up about 18 percent of the world energy mix, a share that would need to double to 36 percent by 2030 to meet the UN's goals. At the current pace of growth, the world is on track to increase renewable energy's share to just 19.4 percent, the report concluded. "Business as usual will not remotely suffice" to meet the UN's goals, the report said.

The World Bank report recommended a broad array of initiatives to fight energy poverty and boost development of cleaner energy, including government actions such as a phaseout of fossil fuel subsidies and establishing a price on carbon. But the report said achieving the steep increases necessary in financing for energy is unlikely to be possible without "substantial investment" from the private sector.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.