When star attraction Thomas Edison appeared at the 1889 Paris Centennial Exposition spotlighting the wonders of technology, hundreds of his inventions dominated the American wing of Palais des Machines.  But for most Parisians, one device glowed brightest:  Edison had “tamed lightning with his incandescent lighting system” as contemporary accounts phrased it.  

Today, a century and a quarter later, more people —around 1.5 billion—are living without electric light than occupied the planet Edison helped illuminate, despite research showing that small amounts of electricity are critical to poverty alleviation, slowing population growth, and educational advancement.  Next week, when nations gather in Paris to limit fossil fuel emissions that cause climate change—that is, to grapple with the consequences of the Electricity Age Edison helped bring about—they must not neglect the energy needs of the world’s poorest, who have not benefited from fossil fuels, but will almost certainly bear the brunt of climate change impacts.  A critical place to start is providing the poorest solar power for lighting, communications, refrigeration and clean water. 


Fortunately, the world today stands on the cusp of another lighting revolution; bringing affordable, clean, solar electricity, often without the need for massive coal power plants or a centralized electric grid. Solar photovoltaic costs have fallen by two-thirds in the last decade.  Now small solar units costing less than $40 can hang from any domicile, providing enough solar electricity to run several LED lights for at least 8 hours a day and charge two cell phones at 30 percent lower cost per month than dangerous kerosene lanterns. Small, advanced microgrids are now strung together to power the basic needs of multiple homes. 

The private sector is beginning to engage.  In Zimbabwe, for example, the wireless company Econet offers a solar lighting system with 4 LED bulbs that also charges two phones.  The unit is leased from their cellular stores, far cheaper than kerosene, providing more and healthier light – and saving customers from having to stand in front of the expensive, dirty diesel engines twice per week to charge phones.  Many similar companies are marketing other products. 

While promising solar delivery is underway in Africa, India, Latin America and many island nations, truly monumental scale deployment will require innovation not just in technology but finance.  Micro-lending, which has already provided more than 150 million people around the world small loans without collateral, can play a central role in reaching those 1.5 billion people without electricity who live on less than $2 a day and now spend 15-30 percent of the income on energy. 

Solar energy is just one piece of the broader effort needed to bring affordable, practical and low-polluting energy to people around the world.  Led by US Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz, dozens of energy ministers, development banks, business experts and others met in Paris recently through the International Energy Agency to discuss ways to free up capital and expand clean energy deployment opportunities.  This work should be linked with UN climate change goals to fund clean energy deployment, emissions reductions, and climate change adaptation in the developing world, from both private and public sectors, to the tune of at least $100 billion annually by 2020, as global leaders have pledged.  A recent OECD report found that in 2014 almost $62 billion went toward these issues, a good down payment but only about one quarter of this amount comes from critical private sector investment catalyzed by public policy and development bank efforts. 

One promising approach would involve expanding loan guarantees to businesses investing in clean energy financing and distributed energy in particular, with the World Bank Group, regional development banks bundling loans to create large financing options.  But many more creative and effective financing options at scale are needed. 

Likewise, avoiding the need for expensive centralized spoke and hub system of electric grids will require a practical vision for the village and town of the future who inhabitant are justifiably exhorting their governments to provide them electric power.  Just as cell phones have leapfrogged the wires and polls of landlines using distributed cellular towers, so locally-generated energy has the potential to integrate local wind, geothermal, anaerobic digesters, photovoltaics, micro-hydropower, battery banks and even electric cars in a consumer-centric, distributed energy system.   

Even more transformative energy technologies likely await, if we make the investments.  Corporate leaders have called for major developed nations leaders to expand research and development investments toward big energy breakthroughs to greatly lower costs and emissions, including scalable electricity storage that would enable far higher amounts of renewable electricity to be used. 

Efforts by wealthier nations to spread solar and other renewable energy technologies must increase if the cycle of poverty and overpopulation is to be broken without also risking increasingly large climate change impacts, which huge new networks of planned coal-fired plants in the developing world could help lock-in.  Yes, poor but rapidly developing countries in Asia, Africa, South America and elsewhere have a right to expand fossil fuel use.  But they also risk extreme and costly climate impacts for their own vulnerable populations.

Paris is known as The City of Light (La Ville Lumiere) in part because it was the first European capitol to be widely lit in the 1830s by gas and kerosene, not dissimilar from fuels still used in the developing world today.  But the sobriquet’s origins trace back deeper, to the Enlightenment itself, when French philosophers like Descartes and Montaigne brought fresh ideas about science, technology and politics to a rapidly changing world.   

Especially in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attacks of Nov. 13, it is this spirit of enlightened mutual self-interest—of egalite and fraternite, if you will—that must prevail as global leaders wrestle with the twin challenges of poverty alleviation and climate protection. 

During his 1889 Exposition visit, when the newly built Eiffel Tower was highly controversial as a symbol of industrialism, Edison said that he liked the French because “they have big conceptions.” Now Paris can help meet big new challenges, and light up the world, again.

Bledsoe is president of Bledsoe and Associates, an energy policy consultancy, and a former climate aide in the Clinton White House.  Sklar is adjunct professor on sustainable energy at George Washington University and chairs the U.S. Commerce Department’s Renewable Energy Advisory Committee.