"...Around 1.5 billion people, or more than a 20% of the world’s population, have no access to electricity, and 1 billion more have only an unreliable and intermittent supply..."
- SOURCE: The Economist Staff. (September 2, 2010). "Energy in the developing world: Power to the people." The Economist View website.
While someone reading articles like this one will see the "sexy" words like solar used here and there, the big reminder from the author is that the lack of energy or the use of higher priced, unhealthy energy leads to real social issues. Nights without light can mean fewer hours to study or produce goods to sell. Using kerosene lights often translates into large doses of toxic air. The lack of refrigeration can lead to unsafe food quality and high rates of food loss. You get the idea.
So, how to fix the problem? Throwing some money at it would help, but you'd need a very strong arm to throw $35 billion per year at the issue until 2030 to ensure that everyone had better access to electricity (per the United Nations). But this is a scenario likely based on traditional centralized electricity generation with long, inefficient and capital-intensive transmission systems. (Somebody, please correct me if this is bad assumption.)
Instead, lots of social entrepreneurs, NGOs and for-profit businesses (or some that may be considered all three simultaneously) are aiming at bottom up, leapfrog, decentralized solutions. With families sometimes spending 30% of their income on kerosene, solutions that involve small solar PV panels plus LED lights -- both of which have seen their price fall by half in the last ten years -- are gaining traction. Other creative solutions involve micro-anaerobic digestors using cow manure in rural areas to produce power, affordable solar lanterns, solar sewing machines, tapping into global carbon markets as unique financing methods, rentable stations for cooking with liquified natural gas (LFG) instead of wood collected from denuded forests, microfinance provided in tandem with alternative training programs, and many more ventures. Some of the groups pushing these ideas forward include D.Light, Solar Aid, MicroEnergy Credits, Lemelson Foundation, Selco Solar, Emergence BioEnergy, Husk Power Systems, Grameen Shakti, and Solar Sister.
Hopefully, with efforts like these, we can begin to reframe the question as "How soon can we (not just "can we") provide power to meet the basic needs of all the world's peoples, without simultaneously magnifying carbon emissions past the point of control?"