Left in the Dark: Electrical Access for the Poor

Take a second. Turn the lights on in the room you’re in.  Did you doubt that they would come on when you flicked the switch? Consider the computer, tablet, or phone you are using to read this article.  How easy for you is it to charge it and turn it on? How much do you use it to communicate, navigate, study, or shop? For those of us that have the fortune of living in the first world, access to electricity is a right often taken for granted.  

This web of electrical wires poses danger to the surrounding village, but is a common sight in India. 

This web of electrical wires poses danger to the surrounding village, but is a common sight in India. 

Yet, for many living in the third world, access to electricity is a distant hope. Currently, over 1.2 billion people in the third world have no access to any source of electricity.  Additionally, over a billion people only have access to unreliable electrical grids.  This means that 1 in 3 people worldwide have limited access to electricity, while 1 in 5 have absolutely no access (1).  

Access to electricity affects more than household lighting.  Limited access means utilizing dangerous and inefficient alternatives to meet daily needs.  Three billion people use open fires and biomass stoves to cook and to heat their homes.  As a result, over 4 million people die each year from illnesses directly related to household smoke inhalation; 50% of those deaths are children under 5.  By comparison, these deaths exceed the combined annual deaths of both malaria and HIV/AIDS (2).  

Education similarly suffers when people have no access to power.  Nearly 300 million children attend school daily with no electricity (3).  This means they have no lighting, no ability to control the temperature in their rooms, restricted options for offering meals, and no access to the electronic resources we take for granted in first world education.  Not having access to electricity stifles productivity and education, while contributing to rapidly deteriorating health for the poor.

Our organization is actively working to address these issues in our third world development efforts.  Father and son Scott and Tim Sherrod work with MCH, a state-licensed electrical contractor. Currently working in residential and commercial environments in Nashville, their desire is to continue to grow in their capacity, to serve the poor through access to safe, reliable sources of electricity.   

Scott Sherrod has worked with electricity since he was a teenager working with a family-owned business.  He recalls his initial visit to India in 2004, where he was “blown away” by the effects of energy poverty.  Rural villagers had little or no lighting after sunset.  Poorly managed electrical lines fell into sidewalks and roads, particularly hazardous in flood seasons.   When people couldn’t rely on public utilities to energize their homes and businesses they “tapped” into the grid themselves. After Scott asked if they wait till the grid is off to tap in, his Indian friend replied, “No. They hook their cables onto the main lines when it is live.  Would you like me to show you how?”

Tim Sherrod has had similar experiences working in the Philippines.  During his 2013 trip he observed just how restricted access to power was even for those living in urban environments.   He experienced the incredible disparity in electrical access during frequent politically motivated “brownouts” (a drop in voltage in an electrical supply system that results in the reduced availability of electricity in an area).  When a Filipino politician campaigned in neighborhoods it was common to manipulate the flow of power to heighten the residents felt needs for electricity, promising to deliver greater access to power.  These promises were seldom delivered after elections, leaving neighborhoods with unreliable access to the grid.

Scott Sherrod at his recent solar conference. 

Scott Sherrod at his recent solar conference. 

Both Scott and Tim Sherrod invested their time in becoming competent electricians capable of working on conventional systems; now they are learning how to expand options for electrical access to the poor.  Both spent a week this fall training with an organization specializing in large scale solar installations.  

They were introduced to designing and wiring systems ranging from residential homes to facilities as large as hospitals. This knowledge complements the advances they have already made in conventional electricity.  Solar power can be a helpful addition to an existing system, expanding the capabilities of an electrical grid beyond a system built exclusively on one source of power.   

Ultimately, alternative energy is a tool for increasing the health and productivity of the poor, the goal of energy access.  While many people and organizations view alternative energy as a means to reduce their carbon footprint, we understand that the issue is more than environmental.  Scott Sherrod believes that we can enrich the lives of our brothers and sisters around the world through access to power: “Our ability to make [electricity] available and make it something not complicated and practical is within our reach.” We are continuing to develop our familiarity with systems of electricity, transferring that knowledge from our practice here in Nashville to the regions we work in abroad. 


(1) UN Foundation- "Clean Energy Development
(2) World Health Organization Fact Sheet
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