Robert Rand, BURN Editor

Access to electricity is a given in this country. It’s not something most of us even think about until a storm or excessive demand shut off the lights. Our presumption of electricity connectivity makes the following statistic, from the International Energy Agency, all the more sobering: Nearly 1.3 billion people on this planet do not have electricity. That is about one-fifth of the global population.

The IEA says that more than 95% of people without modern energy access live in developing Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Here are some details from the IEA’s 2012 World Energy Outlook:

          There are nearly 630 million people in developing Asia and nearly 590 million people in sub-Saharan Africa who lack access to electricity. Just ten countries – four in Asia and six in Africa – collectively account for nearly two-thirds of those deprived of electricity.

In all of Africa, 57% of the population is without electricity, according to the IEA. In Uganda the percentage is 92%. India has the largest population without grid access – 293 million – although the IEA report notes that India “has actually been a driving force in improving the trend in South Asia over the last decade, reducing the number of people without access to electricity by around 285 million.”

People w-o electricity 2010

IEA’s energy poverty country list (data is for 2010)

In the United States, it is hard to find data regarding Americans who live off the grid. In 2006, USA Today reported that there were “some 180,000 families living off-grid, a figure that has jumped 33 a year for a decade.”

Benjamin Sovacool, a law professor who heads the Energy Security and Justice Program at the Vermont Law School, estimates that the number is “about 300,000 today.”

“My guess is poverty would account for 70 to 75 percent of those off grid,” Sovacool told me. “However, the reasons for being off grid can reflect more than poverty and include technology and lifestyle.

“There are rural homes that are still, believe it or not, too remote from electricity networks to be connected,” Sovacool said. “And there are those adventurous types that pride themselves on being self-sufficient, going off grid by purchasing expensive small-scale wind turbines, microhydro units, solar home systems and the like.”

What is it like for those 1.3 billion people abroad who live, involuntarily, without electricity? For a compelling collection of energy poverty photography go to Peter DiCampo’s web project Life Without Lights.

Listen to BURN’s special The Switch: The Story of Our National Grid