The Problem With Electricity.
In the 190 years that passed since we first harnessed it, electricity’s become one of the most essential part of our lives. After all, if you’re reading this article, then I’m guessing you have access to it. But while we’re in our fully-powered homes, we tend to forget something:
This isn’t normal for everyone.
Not everyone gets to experience electricity like you might be. Over 1.2 billion people, don’t get that opportunity. If you were to put those people in a line, they would span over 350,000 km. That’s four Americas worth of people’s futures compromised.
Electricity is a human right, but it’s honestly shocking (no pun intended) to see the surprisingly small portion of people lucky enough to be in the right circumstances to have access to it. Think about this: if you’re an adult that doesn’t have the net worth of Jeff Bezos, chances are that you’ve complained about the price of your electricity bill. Now imagine how a family earning four dollars a day would do the same. They don’t.
Or imagine if you, in a developing country, did have the money to pay for your power bills, but there wasn’t a power line in sight, and no one was educated enough to install it for you in the foreseeable future.
We’ve got hydro, nuclear, coal, wind, and solar, but which one of them has actually solved the root problem? None. If any one of these methods actually did, no one would have to go without electricity.
But, what’s stopping us from getting there? What are the factors preventing us from distributing electricity everywhere, and for everyone?
The Three Devils Standing Against Worldwide Electricity Access
Money, monopolies, and accessibility.
They’re the three factors that come into play to dictate the state of any major world problem. Let me go into further detail on that:
Take the average family in a developing country like Kenya. By average family, I mean a small army of seven people who all need to be fed, clothed, and have a roof to sleep under. Considering how the average monthly income in the country falls under $195 USD, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see why barely 5% of people living in remote areas can foot the $200 power bill.
That’s why the largest barrier to worldwide electricity access is money — not only for the consumer, but equally so for major electricity companies and governments. It costs over $285,000 to put up just a mile of transmission lines. Multiply that already massive figure ten-fold, and you’ll get the a conservative estimate of how much its going to cost to light up a small village:
Unfortunately, with that huge startup cost, giant electric companies aren’t going to be distributing electricity to underprivileged areas on the cheap — there just isn’t an economic incentive.
Why would an energy company set up operations in developing areas when you could invest the same amount into mega-cities and get an exponentially higher return? That’s a barrier that can’t be worked around with innovation either — these companies have built some of the biggest monopolies we know of today, with ‘the big five’ corporations having amassed almost 60% of the global market share.
Why is that important?
Because these companies love the status quo.
For decades, none of the big five actually switched away from burning fossil fuels, and it doesn't seem like they have any plan to do so moving forward. That also means that they don’t want innovative solutions to gain traction. These companies are enormous, and being enormous comes with the added perk of getting to suppress their competition through lobbying, marketing, or starting flat-out lawsuits against them.
Assuming you live in a developed country that’s supplied with electricity in close to all its regions, money comes into play there too. Even in ‘modern’ countries with the facility of electricity, there’s still millions of people who can’t afford to pay for it, and as you’ll see later, the exact opposite can be true for people as well.
Now, this is where accessibility becomes a looming issue. Remember that example I gave of that family of seven in Kenya struggling to afford electricity? Here’s another equally realistic situation occurring globally.
Take an upper-middle-class family from North Korea — a country where electricity is treated like gold. They would be wealthy enough to pay for it,
if only it was actually there:
It may come as a surprise, but an estimated 56% of the North Korean population actually goes without electricity, and that even applies for most five star hotels there. That’s extremely concerning, especially considering how people would have to be forced to go without electricity due to circumstances completely out of their control, even if they could afford it.
Money, monopolies, and accessibility. That’s the deceivingly challenging trifecta of factors stopping us from becoming a society that can hope to have universal access to electricity. And to top everything off, our efforts would be essentially useless if we didn’t deal with all three at once.
But, how do we get there?
Renewables — Where Do We Go From Here?
When I say renewable energy, the first thing that comes to your mind would probably either be solar or wind. Along with hydro, nuclear, and the plethora of up-and-coming renewable power sources, they’re slated to be the next big wave in the energy industry.
It’s not news that literally burning the remnants of our ancient dino ancestors isn’t really environmentally friendly, so it looks like renewables are destined to save our planet from the growing effects of global warming. Sooner or later, we’ve got to stop burning things electricity. As always though, there’s just a tiny problem in the way.
As it turns out, burning fossils is almost 40% effective at generating electricity. That’s nowhere near where we ought to be in the 20th century,
but that’s still almost twice as efficient as traditional solar panels, and more sustainable than any other sustainable form of energy we have to date:
In the end, governments create plans for the future of electricity, but energy companies execute on them, and no energy company is going to be interested in implementing an inefficient form of electricity.
So, if efficiency plays a part in the process in deciding what method of electricity we’ll ultimately use, then that’s something that’s going to have to be optimized for too. Solar and wind power are cheap — they’ve actually developed to become the cheapest energy source we have. That proves we’re on the right track in one aspect, but how do we translate that to other ones?
Now, solar and wind may result in the cheapest electricity bills, but the installation costs might lead you to see that they aren’t as attractive as you might think:
You would need between $1,000–10,000 to install enough solar panels to run an average household, and up to triple for wind turbines. Keeping in mind how the average monthly wage for an adult in a developing country would be around $800, that’s nothing more than a pipe dream.
If solar, wind, or any other form of renewable power we have doesn’t get to where we need to be in terms of efficiency, accessibility, and affordability, then we’ll have to find one that does:
The developments occurring in energy generation techniques such as fusion and biomass are expanding quicker than we can keep up with, and even going back to solar and wind, they’ve went from a concept among scientists, to the cheapest forms of electricity we know in just 20 years. Electricity distribution is going through an unforeseen phase of growth and innovation right now, almost like an accelerated version of Moore’s Law, but for energy.
Monopolies can in all shapes and sizes, but the energy monopoly is really one-of-a-kind. If we really want to harness the unprecedented developments in energy, we’ve got two options — either we find a way to disrupt these companies before they knew what hit them, or we give them an incentive to innovate with the insane amount of resources and wealth they’ve already accumulated, and the latter option sounds a lot more actionable for now.
If we’re hoping to tackle climate change from the source, making energy green is in our best interest. If we’re hoping to push society forward, moving towards affordable and accessible electricity is in our best interest. If we’re already thinking about colonizing new planets, we should seriously begin to consider solving our own, basic problems first.
Don’t you agree?
Electricity is opportunity, and it can pay dividends for generations to come.
Because in the bottom line, everyone can benefit from it — from the family in Kenya struggling to get by, all the way to you, me, and everyone. By giving people a clean, reliable source of electricity, we’re giving people the opportunity to flip a switch and get educated. The opportunity to get employed and better their societies, and most importantly, we’re giving everyone the opportunity to have a future that they can be proud of.
And that future, is priceless.
Hey! Aaryan here! and I’m a 14-year-old that’s interested in everything to do with world problems, specifically medicine. Hopefully you enjoyed reading about the web of factors that come into play with universal electricity access — I sure enjoyed writing about it! Catch up with my articles here, or feel free to clap for this one — it would mean a lot! 👏