Working Toward Sustainable Energy for All  
by Rachel Cernansky
March 16
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Every year, the UN chooses a social or environmental issue of global importance -- such as biodiversity (2010) or microcredit (2005) or sanitation (2008) -- to bring attention to the issue or issues, and to drive resources toward solving them. This year, 2012, is the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All.

The UN estimates that 1.4 billion people have no access to electricity, either because energy services are not available or because they cannot afford to pay for them. While that sounds inconvenient to people who can switch on a light bulb or charge their cell phones at any time, the need for energy is about much more than convenience.

Access to energy affects how much time a child can spend on his or her homework; it determines how a family cooks (which has implications for health -- traditional cookstoves, for example, are big contributors to respiratory illness) and how much time is spent on this task; and it impacts a person's ability to earn income, whether it's light to keep a shop open at night or fuel to operate an irrigation pump on a farm.

This last piece is the focus of Poor People's Energy Outlook, a new report from Practical Action, a UK-based organization that uses technology to challenge poverty and puts out a major report on various aspects of energy access annually or every other year. The 2010 report focused on energy in the home, an area that covers lighting, cooking, space heating and cooling, and information and communications. The 2012 report focuses on the impacts that access to energy has on the ability of the world’s poorest people to earn a decent living. Ultimately, it argues that when poor people have the sustainable energy access that is necessary for enterprise activities, it becomes possible to escape the cycle of poverty that has trapped so many people around the world.

For examples of the crucial role that energy plays, the Practical Action report points to a grocery shop in Nepal where the owner makes his income from charging cell phones and selling, in addition to standard items like bread and candy, cold drinks from his refrigerator. But an energy crisis has brought cuts to the regional power supply and the owner has had to close the shop early and cannot sell cold drinks, both of which have reduced his income. Power cuts have also hurt Subash, who runs a small carpentry workshop in the same village as the grocery store. Since he can no longer support his family also because of power cuts, he said his wife and children have had to start rearing cattle and finding firewood to help out.

Stories just like this one are countless around the world, where if one piece in the larger puzzle of economic struggle is misplaced, the whole game is thrown off. If the income-generator of the family cannot make ends meet, responsibilities often fall to children, who then miss days of school, or an education entirely -- one of the factors that makes poverty a hard-to-overcome cycle

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