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.

Emily Wax/ Washington Post
Gurdeep Singh keeps the generators running at three Subros plants in Noida, a New Delhi suburb hit by power cuts. Subros makes air conditioners for cars.

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 cars.

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 US 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, 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.

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 and oil.

But many economic experts here are doubtful that will happen.

"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 yet."

(Washington Post correspondents Stephanie McCrummen in Nairobi and Karin Brulliard in Johannesburg and special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.)

Editor’s note: For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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