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Light Up the World
Alex Steffen, 17 Nov 03

For one third of the planet, nightfall means darkness. For the almost two billion people without electricity, the night is still lit only by fire, if at all. Burning wood or dung, kerosene lanterns, candles and so on pollutes the air in people's homes, produces greenhouse gasses and demands time and money spent getting fuel that poor people can ill-afford. As the World Energy Council put it, "The world's oldest energy technology, the cooking fire, remains the most widespread fuel-using technology today. A reliance on traditional fuels and technologies, because of associated time demands and localised air pollution, is a hardship that keeps a large fraction of humanity - particularly women - locked into cycles of poverty, ill-health, and deprivation." The Light Up the World Foundation is out to change all that.

Their breakthrough realization? A single white light-emitting diode (LED) - run off a battery powered by a pedal-cranked microgenerator, wind turbine or solar panel - gives off enough light to read by. Since LEDs use less than a single Watt, a hundred homes can be lit with the energy it'd take to illuminate one 100 Watt incandescent bulb. They're also cheap, and increasingly easy to manufacture in the developing world. Best yet, the efficiency of LEDs has so far followed Moore's law, doubling roughly every 18 months. Based on pilot projects in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, there's every reason to hope that tiny diodes will soon be nestled in thatch, attached to corrugated sheet metal and taped to cinderblocks in billions of homes around the world.

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it's sorta humbling that much of the world isn't industrialised, much less service- or IT-based, and how much we take illumination for granted.

thinking about the role of light in economic development reminded me of this bit in a presentation by delong and summers a couple years back:

"William Nordhaus (1997) has analyzed the real price of light: how much it costs in the way of resources and labor to produce a fixed amount of artificial illumination, and has found that the real price of light has fallen by a thousandfold over the past two centuries. A middle-class urban American household in 1800 would have spent perhaps 4 percent of its income on illumination: candles, lamps, oil, and matches. A middle-class urban American household today spends less than 1 percent of its income on illumination, and consumes more than a hundred times as much artificial illumination as did its predecessor of two centuries ago.

"Yet we do not speak of the 'illumination revolution,' or of the 'new economy' generated by the existence of exterior streetlights and interior fluorescent office and store lights. The productivity of illumination-producing technology has increased enormously, but its impact on the economy and on society has been limited. Demand has not grown rapidly enough to offset falling prices. The total share of illumination in total urban spending, and thus the share of illumination production in the urban economy, has shrunk. Our artificial illumination technologies are an enormous boon and source of value--Nordhaus (1997) believes that it has contributed seven percent to the growth of real wages over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries--but its economic salience has been limited."

Posted by: smerkin on 17 Nov 03

This is so very typical. Is it that this one third of the world could also use some FOOD? HEAT? If they don't have electricity, they're probably having a bit of trouble getting medical attention. I don't think the burning of wood is as serious as the fact that these human beings are DYING in these areas. LED lights...are they SERIOUS? A family has no heat and you send them a light that burns COLD?


Posted by: Cho Chin-Midori on 18 Nov 03

i don't think it's an either/or choice cho! like you could to both/and :D also just saw this on arse :D


Posted by: smerkin on 18 Nov 03

It's definitely not either/ or. The LED solution solves (or may solve) a specific problem: lack of light. As to questions about lack of heat, there are and will be other solutions. Incandescent bulbs make pretty inefficient heaters. But remember, even where people need fires for heat, fuel shortages are becoming a huge problem worldwide.

Not sure where you feel medical comes into this question, Cho, as the only medical implication raised by the entry is the massive health costs of burning things indoors, or what you feel this is typical of. I hear your outrage, but perhaps it's misdirectd in this case.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 18 Nov 03

Uh . . . what Alex said.

But more so:

It's easier to do _anything_ under proper lighting conditions. It's easier to cook, it's easier to do medical exams, it's easier to clean up.

And: It's also easier to do _work_ if you have proper lighting. If you can squeeze in an extra hour of work, and work more efficiently and in greater safety, you can earn a little more money and pay for more and better food and medical care.

And: It's easier to read if you have proper lighting. Reading, as in what school kids do a lot of in an attempt to better their lot.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 18 Nov 03



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