In many developed countries, access to electricity is seen as almost a given. Not only that, it’s practically essentially for most functions of daily life: hospitals, office buildings, transportation, and much more. And yet, throughout the world at large, more than one billion people still do not have regular access to electricity. In some developing countries, electrification rates can be as low as 10%.

In sub-Saharan African countries in particular, even those with access to electricity experience challenges getting it to work when they need it. In Nigeria, for example, insufficient generating capacity, poor conditions in existing power plants, and problems in electricity distribution networks can often leave Nigerian consumers without power for more than half the time, annually. In other words, when they go to switch on the lights, there’s only about a 50% chance they will actually come on.

Air pollution is a silent killer in sub-Saharan Africa. Recent estimates suggest that poor air quality leads to an additional 450,000 infant deaths in the region.

DeVynne Farquharson, Engineering & Public Policy Ph.D. student, Carnegie Mellon University

While this unfortunate reality can lead to a lot of obvious health dangers, such as a lack of reliable power for doctor’s offices, hospitals, and emergency services, Engineering and Public Policy (EPP) researchers show that there is another resulting health danger that is far more insidious: air pollution. 

EPP Ph.D student DeVynne Farquharson and Professors Paulina Jaramillo and Constantine Samaras recently published their results in Nature Sustainability. 

“While there are many sources of air pollutants that affect air quality,” says Farquharson, “we found that reliance on backup diesel generators can lead to increased air emissions. Our results suggest that, in some countries, air emissions resulting from reliance on backup generators can be even larger than annual emissions from centralized power plants.” 

Read the paper
Read their paper, “Sustainability implications of electricity outages in sub-Saharan Africa,” published in Nature Sustainabiity.

Without reliable access to electricity, residents of these countries are forced to take matters into their own hands—often in the form of on-site, diesel back-up generators. The use of these generators, the team found, increases fossil fuel energy consumption by a factor of 1.5 – 1,000, compared with current grid levels throughout the region, and cost customers millions of US dollars per year. But most significantly, the emissions from these generators have a substantial negative impact on the health of their users in both homes and businesses.

“Air pollution is a silent killer in sub-Saharan Africa,” says Farquharson. “Recent estimates suggest that poor air quality leads to an additional 450,000 infant deaths in the region.”

The United Nations has declared access to electricity as one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. But as the team’s research has shown, unreliable delivery of electricity can lead to additional consumer costs, limited economic benefits, and increased environmental impacts. The team’s research highlights how important it is to ensure that, moving forward in the goal to electrify sub-Saharan Africa, governments invest in reliable access to electricity, in order to save the lives of all those currently effected by the significant contribution of diesel generators to air pollution.