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  • Writer's pictureTom McAndrew

Exploring the World of Energy: Part 1

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

Suitable for A Level, IB, IGCSE, GCSE students and teachers of Geography



I’m producing a series of blog posts about energy. I think it is very important to understand its importance because once we have a regular supply of energy I’ve noticed we tend to take it for granted (or at least I do but I guess I’m not alone in this!). What actually is energy? What do we use the different forms for? How has access to it improved our lives? How do we get it and does it reach us?


What is energy?


Let’s start with some basics. Two main forms of energy are potential and kinetic electrical energy is a form of kinetic energy and that's what we'll be looking at.


Why do we need electrical energy?


We need electrical energy to power so much of our modern lifestyles. Electricity powered air-conditioning machines and fans help cool us in hot climates and electrical heating helps to warm us in colder climates. Electricity helps to power a lot of transportation, industrial machines, household appliances and information and communication technology (ICT).


It's very hard to imagine life without any electricity. Imagine all of those gadgets that we know and use in our lives. Gadgets such as smart watches, smart phones, tablets, and laptops to name but a few. Let's think about household appliances as well, things such as your toaster, kettle, washing machine, dishwashing machine, humidifier, air purifier, TV, radio, speakers. This list is not exhaustive but it highlights how much we actually rely on electricity and a regular electricity supply if living a modern lifestyle in a high income country (HIC) for example or simply living a lifestyle at Level 3 or 4 (based on Hans Rosling’s definitions).


How has it helped humanity so far?


Electricity has had a transformative impact on humanity. Think about the level of education many countries have attained for their populations, the life expectancies that have been extended, the industry that’s been powered, the creativity that has been unleashed; all with the help of electricity and it's truly amazing.


Let's consider lighting. Electricity allows us to light our homes, streets and workplaces. It has extended the length of our productive days and improved safety. Crime experiences a major drop in well lit streets and areas. Let's stop for a moment here and think about how we would go about our lives without simply having lighting in our home and indeed many people do still have to consider that.


After living in Myanmar and in other lower income countries (LICs) has taught me how important access to lighting is. Cities in Myanmar experience regular electricity cuts. This very month a large cyclone threatened the coast of Myanmar (Cyclone Mocha) and at one point I thought it was going to lead to extended electricity cuts in Yangon so in order to prepare for that extra candles and a torch with a large battery life were obtained. Yet I’m fully aware that so many people in LICs (Levels 1 & 2) live their lives with limited to no access to electricity. Although access to some electricity has improved from 71% in 1990 to 89% as of 2015. Today 770 million people live without electricity, about 9% of the world’s population.


Communication. Electricity powers the infrastructure that enables global communication systems. telephones, radios, television, the internet, all of these things have led to a web of interconnectivity. Let's imagine a serious reduction in that communication. I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s and so I don’t have to imagine - I know what life was like without a smart phone or internet access. It was great in many ways - but in the globalised world of today in 2023, I cannot imagine having to get by with my smart phone and regular internet access. It might feel like a curse to some, but it’s a major blessing too in many ways and that is without delving too deep in the economic benefits derived from them.


Health care deserves a big mention here. Electricity is very important in powering healthcare. Imagine that surgeon who is in an operating theatre and the light goes out or is in a very badly lit room. Imagine an x-ray machine that cannot be used; the multitude of medical machinery that is needed, MRI scanners, life support systems, surgical tools. Consider the refrigeration needed for vaccines and medications, and preservation of blood supplies. So much of the function of a hospital and many medical services depend on not only electricity but a reliable supply of it. Indeed our life expectancies would not be what they are in HICs if it wasn't for this reliable electricity supplies for our medical services.


One of my early experiences of the importance of electricity in the realm of healthcare was when I was traveling in Uganda and after a car accident had to carry a lady with a broken leg to the nearest hospital. However, on arrival I realised the hospital had problems with intermittent electricity. Lights on and off and not enough power for the x-ray machine. Early in my adult life, the importance of electricity in healthcare was hammered home. It is quite literally a matter of life and death for people.


Manufacturing and industrialisation: electricity has been instrumental in driving industrialisation and manufacturing processes. Electric motors power machinery and assembly lines, increasing productivity and efficiency. Industries such as automotive, electronics, textiles and food processing rely on electricity to operate their equipment and production facilities. Without electricity or with a serious reduction in electricity many of these businesses would have to close down or limit their operations with subsequent job losses and possibly recessions.


Transportation, we now have electric vehicles and that is transforming the transportation sector. Electric cars buses and trains are now being used widely. Their use is, to an extent, replacing fossil fuel powered transportation methods. However, it's important to not forget where the electricity is coming from and how it is produced.


Education and research: electricity has revolutionised education by powering lights and computers, tablets, and smart devices that enhance learning experiences. It provides access to vast amounts of information and educational resources, enabling distance learning and online courses. Electricity access supports scientific research and Innovation across various fields.


Time saving devices and improved quality of life. Electrical devices allow us to save time full stop how much time is saved by those not having to hand wash our clothes, having a dishwasher to wash the dishes instead of hand washing them, using electric cookers, toasters & microwaves. I'm not saying that life would be impossible without these things, of course it's possible, but these appliances definitely save us time. Many people choose leisure activities; and indeed many of our leisure activities also depend on electricity but even if your leisure activity does not depend on electricity, would you even have the time to do your leisure activity if it wasn't for the time saved with other appliances and devices? Even a refrigerator lessens the trips to food markets thereby saving you time.


Electricity helps to power economic development. Industry has already been mentioned but in addition, electricity is a crucial driver of economic growth and development. It enables the function of businesses, creates job opportunities, and supports entrepreneurship. Electricity facilitates trade and commerce, think banking, stock markets. Most small to medium sized businesses would not be able to survive without it.


Electricity is a major key to development. Countries need electricity and if anything they need more of it if they are to improve their quality of life and life expectancy. I’m sure many energy economists might agree with me in stating that more access to electricity is needed in most areas of the world, as populations grow for the time being and as economies edge forward from Levels 1 & 2 to 3 & 4. At the very least, the 770 million people without any electricity deserve to have that access in order to be able to lift themselves out of poverty.


Using data from ourwoldindata.org, 1.5 billion people not having electricity in 1990 represented 29% of the population. Now that figure is down to 9% if we take the 770 million statistic. Lack of access has been cut by 20% - that’s amazing progress to celebrate.


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