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How LEDs can help fight light poverty

Kerosene: Dirty, dangerous and expensive. But new lighting technologies could lift millions of people out of 'light poverty'

In the developed world, the light that floods streets and offices at night or on winter afternoons is taken for granted. Yet today, a century and a half on from the birth of electric light, more than a fifth of the world’s population still lives in darkness.

Relying on fuel-based lighting causes burns, poisoning, and explosions, and can be disastrous in public spaces such as hospitals.

To change this, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has engaged Dr Evan Mills, a scientist with the US Department of Energy, to conduct a set of studies that provide evidence-based assistance to policymakers trying to help the estimated 1.3 billion people throughout the developing world who live in ‘light poverty’.

Connecting more homes and communities to electricity grids is only part of the answer. ‘Energy-efficient, off-grid lighting solutions offer the most promising and scalable means to eliminating adverse health outcomes associated with fuel-based lighting,’ documents Mills. The promotion of policies that would support off-grid lighting market growth are key to reaching the 600 million rural Africans without access to ‘on-grid’ electricity. Small-scale solar or grid-charged LED systems provide one of the most viable proposals.

Safety doesn’t come in numbers
Mills’ research, drawn from 112 data sources and 33 countries, reports that those who lack access to electricity rely instead on light fuelled by propane, candles, bio fuels and, commonly, kerosene. ‘Uncounted businesses also find themselves in the same situation, and additional users on the electric grid face routine outages or energy costs forcing reversion to fuel-based light sources,’ Mills reports. The health and safety implications are significant: explosions resulting from adulterated kerosene and other fuel, structural fires, food contamination, indoor air pollution, poisoning and the compromising of visual performance are listed among the multiple concerns. Treatment is difficult when healthcare is delivered in poorly-illuminated facilities.

‘Women and children bear the brunt of health hardships – burns from all causes are reported as the leading cause of death among children in South Africa,’ Mills reports.

The adverse effects aren’t limited to health. People are spending ‘nearly $40 billion annually (100 times the cost of an equal amount of electric light) to operate highly inefficient and dangerous lamps’. In other words those who can least afford it are paying the highest price for lighting, helping to keep them trapped in poverty.

Light and livelihood
Change won’t come at the flick of a switch, and Mills’ studies also examine the impact of the market transformation – job loss, as well as job creation, focusing on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

He finds that there is a bright outlook for employment in the transition from fuel-based lighting to electrical alternatives; although kerosene distribution provides approximately 20,000 full-time jobs, the adoption of renewable energy lighting would create many more. ‘The potential jobs-to-population ratio for alternative technologies and associated value chains is 30 jobs per 10,000 people living off-grid, which corresponds to the possible creation of 500,000 new lighting-related jobs throughout ECOWAS,’ says Mills.

The lack of lighting in public and commercial spaces also affects growth, it reports, with many people in off-grid communities unable to work what elsewhere might be considered full time. Policymakers have it within their means to increase the pace of job creation, and to smooth the transition with well-placed policies – creating domestic manufacturing roles to removing market barriers slowing its uptake.

The price of light
‘In recent years, grid-independent electric lighting systems (typically LED technology) have emerged as alternatives to fuel-based lighting. They are so efficient and inexpensive compared to traditional solar-electric systems, that their costs can often be recovered in a timeframe not longer than one year.’ Mills reports that the market for these safer, more economical long-term solutions are being stifled by subsidies on lighting fuels, alongside high VAT and tariffs that made them prohibitively expensive for the masses. ‘A decade or more has been spent promoting $100 lanterns in the developing world. Their sales are very slow, even among relatively wealthy end users,’ Mills reports.

‘The rationale for subsidies in the energy sector are typically to bolster given fuels or energy-supply technologies, protect consumers from short-term spikes in energy prices, or serve as an ongoing safety net,’ he explains. The intuitive answer is to shift subsidies from kerosene to solar lanterns, but there is a political risk, as users lose sight of the temporary nature of subsidies: protests and violence have been reported when subsidies are eased or removed. It’s also highlighted that a subsidy on some products but not others would disadvantage products not awarded the subsidy.

In this, the UN’s International Year of Light, the lighting industry is talking up the potential to end light poverty and prevent needless deaths. At the launch of the International Year of Light earlier this week, Philips Lighting CEO Eric Rondolat said: ‘Human suffering on this scale is unacceptable in the 21st century’ and that the economic case for taking action is ‘irresistible’.

Mills’ report has laid-out the path for change. ‘Transition from fuel to electric-based lighting would help reduce health and safety risks’, he concludes, and ‘deliver a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, while supporting new forms of employment, and weaning governments of the burden of fuel subsidies that often exceed expenditures on healthcare.’