electricity in rural areas

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

I often stop to think about the wonders of electricity. Take it away, and I can’t run a drink of water, wash my hands, or flush the toilet. I have to light my way to bed with a candle, but that part’s actually fun; it reminds me of Charles Dickens.

Most of the artifacts that I touch were made with electrically powered tools. It’s hard to believe that much of the United States was without electricity as recently as 80 years ago. The Rural Electrification Act passed in 1936.

It was in searching out that little factoid that I came across something very interesting, a 2008 report published by the World Bank, The Welfare Impact of Rural Electrification

According to the report, the introduction of electric power to communities doesn’t have its largest impact in supporting businesses, although stores and clinics get to stay open longer.

It seems that rural electrification in the developing world is largely residential. At one point, there’s an estimate that two-thirds of the electricity consumption in rural Java is residential. The residential consumption rate is about 78 percent in rural Thailand.

Electrification benefits clinics in supporting refrigeration for the preservation of vaccines. The availability of electricity in a community also correlates with a lower absentee rate among health clinic workers and school teachers.

The report quoted an earlier study in which an official in Ghana reported that four teachers had been assigned to the local school, but only one had shown up. As that official put it, “What teacher will come here and live in a place with no electricity?”

In my highly electrified world, the water at home is provided by the city. If a line falls and my home goes dark I can light candles, and the water usually continues to run. I’ll drink wine instead of beer so I won’t have to open the refrigerator and let warm air in.

But if the water department’s separate power supply fails, then a blackout will really start to hurt. There’s no alternative source of clean water where I live.

Communities that are not electrified have a non-electric infrastructure in place—things like kerosene lamps and a hand-drawn water supply. There is some electricity provided by batteries. The World Bank’s report found a high incidence of radio ownership, for instance, that didn’t rely on electrification.

Although centrally generated electric power is cheaper in the long run than buying kerosene for lamps and batteries for radios, the initial costs of connecting are too high for most households at the bottom of the economic pyramid. According to the report, it is usually only the “non-poor” in rural communities who can afford to connect to the grid.

When they do, their main use of electricity is to produce light, which can extend the day, permit children more time to study, improve their study environment, and enhance security.

Cooking and refrigeration seem to be among the less common uses of electricity in the rural places of the developing world. After lighting, the second most common use of electricity is for television. Nearly half of all rural homes with electricity have TV sets, which bring entertainment and new streams of information into the home.

The World Bank, after all, is a funding organization, and its concern with rural electrification is sustainability. That is, after loans are made to back electrification projects, will sufficient numbers of people be willing to pay a sustainable price for electricity, which will be used primarily for light and TV? The answer is yes.

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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

April 2012

Twitter from John Falcioni

Twitter from Engineering for Change

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