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Developing world's energy needs set stage for fight

Developing nations' urgent need for more energy has become a central issue this year as developed countries push for a global reduction in carbon emissions.

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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.

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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, 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 say.

"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.