How do you stem the flood of people migrating into informal settlements around the world's cities? Electrify the countryside.
People migrate to cities because they provide hope of accessing services and resources unavailable in rural areas. Easier access to energy, and electricity in particular, is a major draw. For many, this is a loosing situation.
Living conditions in informal settlements are often poor, municipalities struggle under the burden of providing basic services to settlements that are inherently difficult to service, and conflict inevitable erupts over illegal hook-ups to the electricity grid. Inhabitants are stuck between living in these conditions, or returning to rural areas where energy poverty deprives them of the ability to make a living. Community based rural renewable energy systems may be a way out of this catch-22.
Speaking at a South African Climate Summit session on energy poverty, Siziwe Khaniyile (from national green NGO Groundwork) discussed how renewable energy systems can provided rural communities with increased social and economic opportunities and provided alternatives to informal urban settlements. For those of us with reliable access to electricity it is easy to take for granted the economic mobility and independence that it creates. Imagine studying by candle light, or sewing piece work by hand and you get a quick reminder of the benefits electricity brings.
World energy use has quadrupled since 1950, but access to energy has remained very unequal. In South Africa -- a country that is home to one of the biggest electricity utilities in the world -- that translated into 2.5million households that are still without electricity. "Exploring Energy Poverty In South Africa", a report launched at the session, discusses these issues in more detail. The report rightly points out that feed-in tariffs do nothing to encourage renewables in areas not connected to the grid. It proposes a new focus on supplying decentralized and when possible community managed biomass, solar, biogas and run of river energy projects to rural communities.
Another interesting facet of the report is a comparison of number of jobs created by different energy technologies. Coal results in 700 jobs / TWh of electricity generated; nuclear, 70; solar hot water, 8 733; and biodiesel, 16 318. From an efficiency point of view you might argue that the fewer people engaged in producing energy the better. But in a country with 21.9% unemployment (and over 60% in some communities), sources of meaningful employment are valuable in and of themselves.