The Crisis of Energy Poverty

By Ishita Madan

Energy poverty is defined as the phenomena in which someone spends over 10% of their annual income on energy related expenses, as opposed to middle and upper class homes who may spend 5%, or even as low as 1%. This is not merely because low income households possess lower salaries, but also because they must pay more per square foot due to the lack of functionality of their homes.

Despite being among the wealthiest nations in the world, the United States’ does not have accessible resources for all. The lack of access to consistent electricity has led to a lack of hot water, a lack of general heating, going without light, forgoing meals and medicine, and having to resort to unreliable alternatives, such as unventilated stoves that can be health hazards. Additionally, in the United States, not being able to afford utility bills is the second most common reason for homelessness among children, after domestic violence.

There have been multiple community and government driven initiatives to provide relief for areas suffering from energy poverty. The Federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance program contributed over $3 billion in relief money but only 22% of families who needed assistance received it, due to oversight issues. As aid has become more inconsistent, and the neighborhoods suffering from energy poverty are drastically underserved and often do not receive the resources they need, communities have begun searching for alternatives to electricity. One such alternative is solar power, which is increasingly being implemented by NGOs in third world nations.

Swapan Kumar, an energy accessibility advocate who has worked with UN affiliated NGOs to provide energy to rural South Asians, commented that solar power is the most effective solution to energy poverty as of now. “Solar power isn’t as expensive as many believe it to be, and is far less harmful to the environment,” he commented. “With solar panels, villagers who were previously unable to access energy can now have a solar energy system in their house free of charge, and then pay through a subscription.” This system is similar to satellites in the West, and is less expensive than the current energy system. “Many people in rural areas are not even aware of their options. It’s necessary to at least increase awareness.”

Solar energy has been used in countries such as Bangladesh, India, and Kenya to combat energy poverty. In these regions, oftentimes even hospitals suffer blackouts regularly. It often takes so much effort to accumulate resources for day to day living that any higher aspirations become impossible to fulfill. It is necessary to expand the reach of solar energy initiatives, for the health, safety, and overall quality of life all over the world. The programs in the third world may be implemented in poor neighborhoods in the United States as well, because although the regions in question are different, the underlying causes of their poverty remain the same.
Ishita Madan is a student at the University of Pittsburgh, and a writer for the NewPeople Newspaper.

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