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Africa s energy poverty, as seen from space

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As we have seen many times before, viewing Earth from space can tell us a lot about the planet we inhabit. Seen from space and at night, and we can learn even more.

Take a look at the image below. What do you see? Can you make out the mark of civilization, the tell-tale glow of lights from cities and villages?

Does it look sparser than you expect? It’s not because the continent of Africa is devoid of people. It’s because the gift of energy services hasn’t reached many of the billion-plus residents. It’s what is called “energy poverty”, that is, a lack of access to what many of consider to be the common element of modern living: electricity.

This image is based on satellite imagery captured by the Suomi NPP satellite, a collaboration between NASA and NOAA. Dr. Bob Raynolds and Dr. Ka Chun Yu of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and Worldviews Network showed this image during their presentation at the Aspen Ideas Festival called “Fire and Lights: Mankind Illuminating the Cosmos”.

Inside the Buckminster Fuller Planetarium, a 34-foot diameter dome in the heart of the Aspen Institute campus, David McConville of the The Elumenati set up a projector in the center of the dome. Think Prometheus’ futurist projectors, minus the space suits.

With Yu at the helm of the computer – our view of the planet starts as we zip around from continent to continent. Dr. Raynolds narrates our journey around the planet and explains the origin of these datasets: initially, the U.S. government started acquiring images of the Earth at night to trace illicit rocket trails from rogue nations and bad actors. Now, the images serve a much more benign purpose: viewing mankind's lightprint, as Dr. Raynolds puts it - on the Earth.

Seeing an image like the one above makes me wonder: what will it take to bring electricity to nearly 600 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa? What new power plants will be built to supply that energy, and what new industries will sprout up as a result of Africa emerging from energy poverty?

Compare the image above to one of the United States, and the disparity is even more striking.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that in addition to countries in Africa, all developing countries – 1.3 billion people – lack adequate access to electricity services. An investment of around $1 trillion is needed to achieve universal energy access in the coming decades, according to the IEA.

Until then, darkness.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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