Summary: Energy is a huge part of making life easier, healthier, more exciting, more cultural and, frankly, more energetic. 1.6 billion people live without electricity mainly in Africa and India. If Bill Gates “could have just one wish to help the poorest people, it would be to find a cheap, clean source of energy to power our world.”
2016 ANNUAL LETTER
At some point today, you’ll probably do one or all of these things: Flip a switch for light. Take fresh food from a refrigerator. Turn a dial to make your home warmer or cooler. Press a button on your laptop to go online.
You probably won’t think twice about any of these actions, but you will actually be doing something extraordinary. You will be using a superpower—your access to energy.
Does that sound ridiculous?
Just imagine, for a minute, life without energy.
You don’t have a way to run a laptop, mobile phone, TV, or video games. You don’t have lights, heat, air conditioning, or even the Internet to read this letter.
About 1.3 billion people—18 percent of the world’s population—don’t need to imagine. That’s what life is like for them every day.
You can see this fact for yourself in this photograph of Africa at night taken from space.
Africa has made extraordinary progress in recent decades. It is one of the fastest-growing regions of the world with modern cities, hundreds of millions of mobile phone users, growing Internet access, and a vibrant middle class.
But as you can see from the areas without lights, that prosperity has not reached everyone. In fact, of the nearly one billion people in sub-Saharan Africa, 7 out of every 10 of them live in the dark, without electricity. The majority of them live in rural areas. You would see the same problem in Asia. In India alone, more than 300 million people don’t have electricity.
If you could zoom into one of those dark areas in that photograph, you might see a scene like this one. This is a student doing her homework by candlelight.
I’m always a little stunned when I see photographs like this. It’s been well over a century since Thomas Edison demonstrated how an incandescent light bulb could turn night into day. (I’m lucky enough to own one of his sketches of how he planned to improve his light bulb. It’s dated 1885.) And yet, there are parts of the world where people are still waiting to enjoy the benefits of his invention.
If I could have just one wish to help the poorest people, it would be to find a cheap, clean source of energy to power our world.
You might be wondering, “Aren’t people just trying to stay healthy and find enough to eat? Isn’t that important too?” Yes, of course it is, and our foundation is working hard to help them. But energy makes all those things easier. It means you can run hospitals, light up schools, and use tractors to grow more food.
Think about the history classes you’re taking. If I had to sum up history in one sentence it would be: “Life gets better—not for everyone all the time, but for most people most of the time.” And the reason is energy. For thousands of years, people burned wood for fuel. Their lives were, by and large, short and hard. But when we started using coal in the 1800s, life started getting better a lot faster. Pretty soon we had lights, refrigerators, skyscrapers, elevators, air conditioning, cars, planes, and all the other things that make up modern life, from lifesaving medicines and moon landings to fertilizer and Matt Damon movies. (The Martian was my favorite movie last year.)
Without access to energy, the poor are stuck in the dark, denied all of these benefits and opportunities that come with power.
So if we really want to help the world’s poorest families, we need to find a way to get them cheap, clean energy. Cheap because everyone must be able to afford it. Clean because it must not emit any carbon dioxide—which is driving climate change.