Energy poverty: where there’s no grid at all

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

 

 

 

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The Hoboken power emergency – Part 2

The city partly flooded again this spring from a couple of days of heavy rain. Built on filled marsh, Hoboken is highly vulnerable - but had never seen anything like Hurricane Sandy. (Photo: Donna Ferrato)

The city partly flooded again this spring from a couple of days of heavy rain. Built on filled marsh, Hoboken is highly vulnerable – but had never seen anything like Hurricane Sandy. (Photo: Donna Ferrato)

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

It’s been almost 9 months since Hurricane Sandy blew out all of Hoboken, New Jersey’s power. It took a week and a half to pump the water out of the city, and repairs to public and private property, and to the grid system, are going to be very expensive.

Mayor Dawn Zimmer spoke with BURN host Alex Chadwick about her city’s plans to get ready when – not if – the next storm comes to Hoboken.

Listen to The Hoboken power emergency – part 1.

The city began to flood here, at the edge of Weehawken Cove, where the explorer Henry Hudson once anchored. Hoboken is a transportation hub, with a growing population, neighborhood shops, and easy access to New York. But the combination of low topography and rising seas means more trouble to come. (Photo: Donna Ferrato)

The city began to flood here, at the edge of Weehawken Cove, where the explorer Henry Hudson once anchored. Hoboken is a transportation hub, with a growing population, neighborhood shops, and easy access to New York. But the combination of low topography and rising seas means more trouble to come. (Photo: Donna Ferrato)

 

Rebuilding underway after the ground level floor of the community center flooded - as did the headquarters for the Fire Department, two other fire stations and the central office of emergency services. The water damages include old, paper-based files of birth records. The city is trying to restore them. (Photo: Donna Ferrato)

Rebuilding underway after the ground level floor of the community center flooded – as did the headquarters for the Fire Department, two other fire stations and the central office of emergency services. The water damages include old, paper-based files of birth records. The city is trying to restore them. (Photo: Donna Ferrato)

 

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Duke Energy leader Jim Rogers on smart grids & brownouts

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

Jim Rogers heads the largest electric power company in the country, Duke Energy. They serve about about 22-million people in the Southeast and Midwest. The award-winning CEO talks with host Alex Chadwick about the challenges of powering the nation, what makes the grid great, and the future of efficiency & smart grid innovation.

 

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Paul Stockton: Keeping the grid safe

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

Paul Stockton was the government’s point man for protecting the nation’s electrical grid from terrorist attacks. He served for four years as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs.

Stockton was the responsible for “defense critical infrastructure protection.” He talks with host Alex Chadwick about the threat of terrorism against the grid. They also discuss  the lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy and how best to protect the grid during the next super storm.

Stockton’s portfolio also included domestic crisis management, and he helped lead the Defense Department’s response to Hurricane Sandy, Deepwater Horizon and other disasters.

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Army’s micro-grid for combat zones

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

An unlikely energy innovator – the US Army – is preparing to deploy a radically redesigned combat outpost featuring a smart micro-grid. COPs are basic military camp for about 100 soldiers. They need to function like small communities – with water, sanitation, food, and power.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, supplying these units with fuel and water became the single greatest point of vulnerability. The new COPs cut fuel demand by at least 50%, which means fewer caravans, and fewer casualties.

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Between bizarre & unimaginable: Life off the grid

Michelle Nijhuis and Jack Perrin's off the grid, straw bale house -- powered by the sun.
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Michelle Nijhuis, Jack Perrin and daughter Sylvia on their land in Paonia, Colorado.
Jack does some repair to the mud plaster on the straw bale office he built for Michelle.
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Jack (right) built this solar-powered house with long-time friend Dev Carey. It took them four months and cost $700.
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The first of two houses Jack Perrin built off the grid here in Paonia. This was constructed with all found materials.
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Michelle and Jack in the living room of their home.
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A 'truth window' in Michelle's office shows the walls are actually made from straw bales.
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4 year-old daughter Sylvia.
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These off-the-grid neighbors gather at Michelle and Jack's house for a weekly potluck. It's a close-knit community.
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Michelle and Sylvia at bedtime.
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Photos:  JT Thomas

Mary Beth Kirchner, BURN Managing Producer

Michelle Nijhuis has lived off the electrical grid with her husband Jack Perrin in the tiny town of Paonia, Colorado – population 1,500 – for fifteen years in a house built with straw bales, plastered with mud and powered by the sun. These two are in the minority in Paonia, with only a couple dozen others who are also off the grid there.

Nijhuis has what some might consider the absolute dream job. She’s an award-winning science journalist who travels the world and has her pick of projects for National Geographic or Smithsonian magazines. But while on the road, she keeps her lifestyle back in rural Colorado rather private. It’s a way of life, she says, many consider “somewhere between bizarre and unimaginable.”

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Electrifying rural America

Bob Malesky, Producer & BURN Contributor

Running a family-owned farm is one of this country’s more difficult livelihoods. Before electrical power, it was even harder. In the early 1930s, only 11% of the country’s farms had power. Fifty years later, nearly all of them had electricity.

Here are oral histories of people who experienced the life-changing transformation, much of it coming courtesy of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Produced by NPR veteran Bob Malesky.

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An REA worker hangs power lines. Photo: Library of Congress

 

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How the grid works: an explainer

Do you REALLY understand how an electrical grid works? Producer Josh Kurz explain today’s power grid, some of its biggest problems, and how smart grid technology could help.

Got 4 minutes? Check out Josh’s short video about the grid.

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Tim Gallant, electrical lineman

Ari Daniel Shapiro, Science Reporter & BURN Contributor

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They are the electric grid army. When the power goes down and the lights go out, a legion of them is deployed.

Power linemen are the first to respond when the public needs to be reconnected with the grid.

This is a portrait of that community through the voice of one of those linemen — what his days are like when things are calm, what happens when disaster strikes, and what he thinks about the state of the grid.

It’s a window into the world of the pole climbing folks in hard hats who, as they like to say, “provide light in a dark night.”

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VIDEO: How the national grid works

Do you REALLY understand how our nation’s electrical grid works? Producer Josh Kurz explains today’s power grid, some of its biggest problems, and how smart grid technology could help.

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