Let There Be Light!

Evan Mills

Mills is a staff scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, at the University of California.

Originally published in the ECEEE "Columnists" website.

Thomas Edison's seemingly forward-looking statement that "we will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles" was true enough for the industrialized world, but it did not anticipate the plight of 1.6 billion people—more than the world's entire population in Edison's time—who a century later still have no access to electricity.

I first "got the bug" in 1995 while walking in a damp alleyway in Varanassi India, where I encountered a crouched street vendor selling bobbles in the light of a hopelessly inefficient kerosene lantern. There must be a better way!

Yes, but.... Due to population growth, barriers to electrification, and other factors, the number of un-electrified people is declining by less than 1% per year globally (and still growing strong in some regions). Although one in four people today obtain light exclusively with kerosene and other fuels, they receive only 0.1% of the resulting lighting energy services.

Put differently, users of kerosene lighting pay 100-times more per unit of illumination than for traditional "inefficient" incandescent lamps.

Shortly after the trip to India, Nils Borg and I (working under the International Association for Energy-Efficient Lighting, IAEEL), were commissioned by the International Energy Agency to develop the first-ever estimate of global energy use for lighting. We were somewhat surprised to find that the total price tag was about $230 billion per year. We were very surprised to find that a sizeable portion of the total was attributable to fuels used for lighting in un-electrified areas.

Over the ensuing years, I sought out users of fuel-based lighting in about a dozen countries, refined the analysis, and look for solutions. In an article for the journal Science in 2005, I estimated the global expenditure on fuels for lighting at $38 billion per year — and this was before the recent run-up in oil prices. This energy use corresponds to 1.3 million barrels per day of oil, and almost 200 million tones per year of carbon dioxide emissions. There are 192 countries that emit less than this!

Thanks to dramatic improvements in the efficiency of white light-emitting diodes (WLEDs), it has become possible to create compact, highly affordable, rugged, and cost-effective illumination systems powered with small solar panels and rechargable consumer batteries. Indeed, this is a compelling opportunity to radically reduce energy consumption while increasing energy service levels.

Seizing this opportunity, the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank, has launched a major initiative—funded by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF)—entitled "Lighting the Bottom of the Pyramid." The initiative will mobilize the private sector, and leverage technological advances in modern lighting, particularly white LEDs, to catalyze and facilitate a market-driven solution that will increase the access to and affordability of modern lighting services to the poorest of the poor — those at the "bottom of the economic pyramid."

IFC realized that the people lacking electricity rather than being isolated from the economic system are an integral part of the lighting industry (broadly defined), collectively spending billions of dollars each year on lanterns and fuel. This represents a large and attractive yet mostly unexplored market for modern lighting manufacturers and distributors.

In the initial mission to sub-Saharan to gather information for development of the IFC initiative, we found that fuel-based lighting can account for up to 50% of all energy expenses and up to 33% of total household income. Yet, while consuming a large share of scarce income, fuel-based lighting provides little in return. The low quantity and quality of the lighting produced poorly supports productive or income-generating activity. We encountered homes, schools, and workplaces with only one- to ten-percent of the illuminance levels considered necessary in industrialized countries. Inadequate illumination reduces educational performance, as children lack the opportunity to study without eyestrain in the evenings. Further, fuel burning leads to unhealthy indoor air pollution.

IFC will pilot the project in Kenya and Ghana, and is actively seeking partners, including donors, WLED manufacturers/assemblers, companies already providing energy solutions in off-grid areas, companies with distribution networks in off-grid areas, NGOs, and local investors and entrepreneurs.