Developing World's Energy Needs Set Stage for Fight
Sep 8, 2009 - Washington Post Foreign
NOIDA, India -- At a wedding ceremony in New Delhi,
the power blinked off just as the groom was placing
the ring on his bride's finger. A factory in Nigeria
was forced to relocate because the cost and scarcity
of electricity made it impossible to turn a profit.
Street protests over the chronic lack of power in
Karachi, the economic hub of Pakistan, turned deadly
as mobs chanted anti-government slogans.
Scenes like these unfolded with increasing frequency
this summer across the developing world as the demand
for energy expanded but governments eager to create
more industrialized economies failed to keep up.
Developing nations' urgent need for more energy has
become a central issue this year as developed countries
-- including the United States -- push for a global
reduction in carbon emissions ahead of a climate change
conference scheduled for December in Copenhagen. Many
African, Latin American and Asian countries want to
avoid legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions,
blamed for global warming. They say that their emissions
are well below those of the developed world and that
such limits would hinder their efforts to lift hundreds
of millions of people out of poverty, even though
economic growth would also inevitably expand the nations'
carbon footprints as more of the poor gain access
to electricity, air conditioners, refrigerators and
The stance of developing nations will also have repercussions
in Washington this fall, as the Senate takes up cap-and-trade
legislation intended to limit carbon emissions and
promote the use of renewable energy. Critics say the
proposed emission caps will put U.S. companies at
a disadvantage by forcing them to limit their carbon
output while businesses in developing countries remain
free to pollute.
In places like Noida, a burgeoning suburb of New
Delhi, the demand for new power sources seems to know
no bounds. Without government-supplied power, people
turn to homemade solutions. Even in big cities, the
poor often forage in forests and parks for scraps
of wood to build cooking fires. From Nigeria's Kano
district to the posh boutiques of New Delhi, entrepreneurs
rely on diesel-powered generators to run their businesses
when the grid goes down. In slums and villages of
the developing world, people power televisions and
fans with a car battery, the poor man's generator.
Power shortages are caused by a mix of poor government
planning, booming industrialism and, in some countries,
a lack of rainfall affecting the rivers that feed
hydropower plants. The shortage of power stymies industrial
growth and the resultant job opportunities, which
can destabilize fragile governments in some of the
poorest parts of the world.
"Although there are frequent cuts even in the capital,
let's be frank, reliable power in the rest of the
country -- including big mega-cities -- is really
not there," said Srikanta K. Panigrahi, an energy
adviser to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose
government has pledged to provide "power for all"
by 2012. Singh's administration signed a historic
nuclear deal with the United States, in part to try
to tackle the shortage.
In India, which sees itself as a rising superpower,
the middle class has quadrupled to about 60 million
people in the past two decades. Millions of people
are eager to buy their first washing machines, refrigerators
and air conditioners, which would further strain the
country's overburdened power grid.
In New Delhi this summer, thousands of men, some
wearing only underwear in protest, rioted over power
cuts. The problem was exacerbated this year by a drought
across Asia and Africa, which has caused rivers to
slow to a trickle and mountain glaciers to shrink.
Just one in four Africans has access to grid electricity,
according to the World Bank. More than 500 million
Indians, roughly half the population, have no official
access to electricity, and those who do are experiencing
rolling brownouts as India's Power Ministry tries
to make up for a 25 percent shortfall in electricity
generation. The developing world's dearth of power
hinders prosperity and adds another layer of difficulty
to daily life. In many places throughout the developing
world, there are air conditioners but no air conditioning,
swimming pools but no water.
"We had to move from our last apartment because there
was never power," said Krity Jaiswal Sah, 24, a former
call center employee in Noida, a dusty technology-driven
boomtown on the edge of the capital. She was lured
by advertisements for luxury condominium complexes
with names such as Orange County and New Jersey Palms,
some even offering hot tubs, though they rarely work
because of daily outages. "And now, the power in our
second apartment is still weak. Some of my friends
sleep in their cars for the air conditioning."
Sometimes, she and her aging father-in-law walk up
nine flights of stairs in the dark -- no power, no
elevator. Their voices are often drowned out by the
hissing and whirring of generators, which form a haze
of purple pollution over their complex's manicured
walking paths and playgrounds.
"It gets so bad, we sometimes think of sleeping in
a hotel," said Sah, who is pregnant and is anxious
to escape the heat.
In much of Africa, families depend on generators,
candles, kerosene lamps and firewood. Blackouts force
shops to close early, schools to cancel classes and
hospitals to turn away patients. Foreign investors
become wary of parking their money in Africa, experts
"Big companies in Africa seem to get most of their
electricity from generators, or they build their own
power plants," said Thomas Pearmain, an Africa energy
analyst for IHS Global Insight.
In South Africa, demand so outstripped supply in
late 2007 that Eskom, the state-owned power company,
began rationing, plunging cities into occasional darkness
and causing temporary shutdowns in one of the world's
major mining sectors. Mining output plunged 11 percent
in January 2008, sending gold and platinum prices
to record highs.
In Kenya, an economic powerhouse in East Africa,
power is being rationed even as workers are digging
trenches for fiber-optic cables along the streets
of Nairobi, the capital. Lengthy power cuts are crippling
an economy that is still reeling from last year's
post-election violence and the fallout of the global
financial meltdown. Auto mechanics, street-side welders
and other businesses are limiting their hours of operation
or shutting down.
Massive power shortfalls in Pakistan are a result
of years of neglect, analysts said: Power stations
are outdated, more and more electricity is being hijacked
from power lines by ordinary people, and the government
is often too preoccupied with the security threat
in the country's northwest to focus on maintaining
existing power plants, much less building new ones.
"Pakistan has to make a choice whether to develop
electricity or face power cuts that result in unemployment,
low economic growth and protests," said Raja Pervez
Ashraf, Pakistan's minister for water and power, who
favors more development.
One of the many hurdles to generating more energy
in places such as India and Nigeria is the protests
that often stall construction of power plants and
hydroelectric dams. In recent years, global environmental
groups have sometimes helped organize protests to
protect local communities from government and corporate
land grabs and from potential ecological hazards posed
by such projects.
Some environmentalists see a chance for Asian and
African countries to take the lead in developing renewable
energy technologies such as solar and wind power,
bypassing Western energy models based largely on coal
But many economic experts here are doubtful that
"The United States and Europe have had the energy
they needed to grow and develop," said William Bissell,
a prominent Indian entrepreneur and author of "Making
India Work." "But we haven't had our 21st century
Correspondents Stephanie McCrummen in Nairobi and
Karin Brulliard in Johannesburg and special correspondent
Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed
to this report.