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Joahannesburg Summit 2002
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Energy Emerges as a Key Issue for Johannesburg

New York, 8 May 2002 – Beyond the debates over energy use and efficiency that have featured during the preparatory process for the World Summit on Sustainable Development is the fact that more than a third of the world's population does not have clean and affordable energy services.

With more than two billion people still burning firewood or biomass for cooking and heating, a lack of modern energy has emerged as a major cause of continuing poverty, pollution and environmental degradation. While there is no disagreement that efforts must be made to bring modern energy services to those who presently lack them, there is a major chasm of differences that have yet to be bridged regarding which sources of energy production should be favoured.

"Having two billion people living outside the energy network is not sustainable," said Johannesburg Summit Secretary-General, Nitin Desai. "What we have to do is meet those needs as well as cope with the environmental and social consequences."

Access to energy has a major impact on development, Desai said, recalling that when he was growing up in India, the arrival of electricity was "the biggest change" in his village.

The problem is that most of the people who do not have access to electricity live in rural areas where it is expensive to tap into national power grids. But Desai said, "No power is more expensive than no power. There are needs out there that have to be met and there are ways out there to meet those needs."

Experts from electric companies say the cost of bringing electricity to those without would require a substantial, although not a prohibitively large, investment. Christian Stoffaes, of Electricité de France, figured that the job of bringing electricity to all would need a total investment of about $200 billion, or about $7 billion per year over a 30-year period. "This is a very small amount," he said, but "the problem is that this will not be done by itself." New mechanisms and incentives were needed, he added, and charity and small programmes would not be sufficient.

Gurneeta Vasudera, of the Tata Environmental Research Institute in India, argued that, instead of a problem that needs fixing, the large number of unserved people represents a market opportunity-a market that amounts to as much as $20 billion a year. "There is a willingness on the part of the poor to pay," she observed.

Electric utilities say that they are working on various projects to bring electricity to rural areas. Shigeyuki Kuninobu, Vice President of Tokyo Electric, explained that an organization of seven electric companies, known as the "E-7," is presently participating in 30 programmes in 22 countries to build capacity and share technology in a manner that promotes community participation and environmental protection.

And Dale Heydlauff of American Electric Power, a consortium of US power companies, said that it was working to promote best practices while expanding access to affordable energy. "People who do not have electricity," he said, "are destined to remain destitute."

But extending power grids takes many years and in some circumstances will never be economically viable. According to Gail Karlsson of the NGO Energia, alternatives to the grid system need to be developed to meet demand. This can be done through a mix of energy sources that includes renewables, such as solar, wind, hydroelectric, and gas from biomass, as well as liquefied petroleum gas and other fossil fuels.

To increase the use of renewable energy, many NGOs contend that government intervention is necessary to help make solar or wind energy economically competitive. Greenpeace, for example, estimates that governments currently subsidize fossil fuels to the tune of $250-$350 billion a year, money that they contend can easily go toward promoting renewable sources of energy.

A challenge for the Johannesburg Summit is to find ways of bringing clean, affordable energy to those in need.

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24 August 2006