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Student essay: Energy and health

Posted by Arjendu on June 4, 2016

Julia Krumholz: Energy Poverty and its Effect on Health

It is unsurprising that access to energy can improve quality of life, measured in parameters such as wealth, literacy, and health. However, the extent to which energy can shape the health of a person is more surprising. Energy poverty, or lack of access to electricity and heat (or the fuel needed to produce electricity and heat) leave more than one billion people in developing countries with insufficient access to healthcare. Lack of electricity especially leads to health crises, where the ability for health facilities to treat people is dependent on access to electricity (Provost 2013).

The correlation between energy poverty and average life span is strong, with energy use directly proportional to life expectancy (Figure 1). The most at risk are people who live in rural areas of developing countries. Lack of infrastructure in rural areas means a lack of power lines, transformers, and generators required to deliver energy both to homes or health facilities. An estimated $40 billion would be required to extend energy grids to the 1.5 billion people living without electricity (The Economist 2010). A major challenge to cost-efficient grid extension is finding materials for conductors. Metals such as copper and aluminum have relatively low resistance, making them good conductors, but also provide large cost barriers when required in high quantities. Reducing the size of conductors saves money, but also increases to voltage drop across the line, providing less power to households (ESMAP 2000).

Due to the lack of power availability in rural areas of developing countries, health facilities in these regions face a number of challenges. For example, without electricity, many clinical services cannot be performed after sunset. If facilities have access to biomass, burning biomass can provide light, although the light is lower quality, can release harmful particles into the air, and can present a fire hazard (Knoth 2014). This deficiency in high quality light also affects the quality of operations that can be performed, with invasive surgeries highly dependent on the ability of the doctor to see. Without electricity, health emergencies in the nighttime become nearly untreatable, resulting in deaths that would be preventable with electricity.

Another problem posed by lack of electricity in health facilities manifests in the inability to properly store medicines or blood. Many medicines and vaccines require refrigeration. Work is required to move heat from areas of cold temperature to areas of hot temperature, as mandated by the second law of thermodynamics, and electricity is needed to provide the energy for thatinput of work. This problem further targets areas that receive power but suffer from frequent power outages, as the one-time heating of some medicines or vaccines ruins the whole batch from further use (Knoth 2014).

Additionally, the probability of an infant neonatal mortality rate (probability of a child to dying in its first 28 days of life) also increases with energy poverty. Access to incubators, which is dependent on access to electricity, greatly improves the chances of infant survivorship. For example, one study in Kenya found that neonatal mortality rate dropped from 40% to 28% in health facilities when facilities were given access to incubators (World Health Statistics 2012). Access to electricity therefore boosts life expectancy by increasing survivorship of infants.

Lastly, access to electricity decreases the use of open fires and kerosene lamps for cooking, methods that can lead to toxic household pollution. In 2012, nearly 1.5 million people died from exposure to smoke biomass, and that number is expected to grow as a bigger contributor to deaths than malaria and HIV/AIDS combined by 2030 (Figure 2) (International Energy Agency 2011). This pollution disproportionately affects women and girls, who have the highest exposure to open household fires for cooking.

Overall, while lack of electricity manifests into a number of problems, healthcare access greatly drops with increased energy poverty. Although it may seem costly to extend power grids to rural areas, the money saved in unsuccessful operations, wasted medicine, and decreased trips to the hospital may offset this cost. The upfront cost of extending power grids results in a major barrier to providing electricity to rural areas of developing countries, but could save money in the long run due to savings in healthcare and human lives.

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Figure 1. Comparison of life expectancy and per capital energy use, as of 2013. Life expectancy increases as access to energy increases.

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Figure 2. Premature deaths associated with air pollution and other diseases, given as data from 2008 as well as expected scenarios for 2030. Provided by International Energy Agency from 2011.
Works Cited
Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme. 2000. Reducing the Cost of Grid Extension for Rural Electrication. ESM227.
International Energy Agency. 2011. Energy for all: Financing access for the poor. OECD/IEA.
International Energy Agency. 2016. Modern energy for all. OECD/IEA.
Knoth, Gretchen. 2014. 6 ways energy poverty threatens health care for the poorest. One.
Pielke, R. 2013. Graph of the Day: Life Expectancy vs. Energy Use. Science, Innovation, and Politics.
Provost, C. 2013. Energy poverty deprives 1 billion of adequate healthcare, says report. The Guardian.
The Economist. 2010. Power to the people. Technology Quarterly, The Economist Newspaper.
World Health Organization. 2012. World health statistics 2012. WHO Library Cataloguing-inPublication Data.

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