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Energy poverty: who's got the power to eliminate it?

UQ people
Published 21 Jul, 2020  ·  2-minute read

Imagine living without electricity. No lights, no air con, no mobile phone. That's the reality of energy poverty.

The UN is aiming to eradicate energy poverty by 2030. But what role could engineers play in solving this humanitarian challenge and developing energy-poverty solutions? 

Energy poverty is still an issue today

Today, 13% of the global population still lacks access to modern electricity. In order to improve access to clean fuels, engineers are creating solutions to the complex global challenge of energy poverty.

The UN recognises that engineers have a critical role to play in achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. One of these goals is access to affordable and clean energy. According to the UN, nearly 9 out of 10 people now have access to electricity. However, reaching those still without power will require increased efforts – around 573 million people are affected by energy poverty in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

Dr Vigya Sharma is an engineering lecturer and advocate for sustainability, climate change and development. She explains how UQ’s focus on humanitarian engineering is helping its engineering graduates own the unknown.

“Energy poverty is more than just people’s inability to afford clean, reliable and modern forms of electricity. It’s a humanitarian challenge that has deep social, cultural and institutional factors at play,” she says.

“Globally, nearly 4 million people die prematurely due to indoor air pollution from the use of unclean, solid fuels for cooking and heating purposes. Overwhelmingly, women and young children bear the majority of impacts from energy poverty.”

Engineering energy-poverty solutions

In the humanitarian context, engineers can make a positive impact by using engineering to help improve people's living conditions.

Humanitarian engineering is all about finding ways to develop innovative, creative, but locally reliant and relevant solutions. One example of this is using microgrids to supply clean power to some of the world’s poorest communities.

“These communities are self-managing their electricity production, usage and management," Vigya says.

"Cleaner electricity not only has direct health benefits. It also promotes access to education, safer living environments, as well as local livelihood-enhancing opportunities."

Humanitarian engineers complement classic engineering skills with critical skills such as leadership, ethics and cross-cultural sensitivity. With specialised knowledge, humanitarian engineers can sensitively apply their engineering practice to humanitarian development. In doing so, they are able to think outside the box and innovate solutions for pressing global challenges together with local communities.

“Humanitarian engineering allows engineers to broaden their perceptions of their role in positively impacting complex global challenges. Issues like poverty, hunger, and lack of access to energy and water,” Vigya says.

“They use self-reflection, open-mindedness and collaboration. These are powerful tools to help navigate the complex and multidisciplinary nature of engineering work likely in the future.”

Want to help eradicate energy poverty? Discover how by studying engineering or computing at UQ.

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