Omniloquence

Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

Energy Poverty and the Catchcry of the Fossilised Saviours

Credit: NASA

Around 1.6 billion people around the world lack access to electricity with the majority of these people in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.1 The situation in sub-Saharan Africa is significant with around 70 per cent of the population lacking access to electricity.2 What this means in real terms is that at night, a rural African village will be in darkness with perhaps the flickering light of paraffin if a family can afford it. It means that cooking takes place with wood or charcoal (carbonised wood) collected from the forest.

Energy poverty appears to be the latest catchcry of fossil fuel interests. BHP recently claimed that, “the growth of our industry is fundamentally tied to the alleviation of abject poverty and the successful development of emerging economies.”3 It is certainly agreed that in sub-Saharan Africa energy poverty poses several problems, some of which includes limitations on what can be done after dark. This includes income generation activities and education with children not being able to read at night. Then there is the deforestation that occurs from the use of fuel wood for cooking and the significant health issues that occur due to the inhalation of smoke from fuel wood and paraffin lamps.

In another example of fossil fuel interests weighing in on energy poverty, the Chief Executive of the Minerals Council of Australia recently penned an opinion piece claiming coal is the answer to energy poverty. Pearson notes that, “closing the energy access gap without coal will be slower and more costly” and that other energy sources including renewables can’t meet the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) projected energy demand.

This kind of promulgation of the benefits of fossil fuels for developing economies is flawed. In the context of sub-Saharan Africa no amount of coal generation will assist in reducing poverty for the majority of people. The centralised energy generation model that comes with the use of coal fired generation plants is becoming obsolete and to impose this model onto developing countries is completely counterintuitive.

Energy consumption in communities of sub-Saharan Africa is minimal and the use of coal generation would require immense investment in infrastructure including transmission and distribution lines to every African village. Now who will pay for that? The cost of extending the grid to remote villages is not likely to be recouped and a study done by Szabo et al comparing the costs of off grid solar photovoltaics (PV), grid extension, mini hydro4 and diesel generation found the most economical solution for vast tracts of Africa was solar PV. Extending the grid was only economical in densely populated regions that were close to an existing grid.5

In other words, people that do not currently have access to electricity in rural Africa are unlikely to gain access to electricity with the centralised model that comes along with coal generation, because quite simply, it is an unaffordable and inequitable model for the future.

A more equitable and cost effective solution is decentralised renewable energy sources. Small scale renewable technologies such as wind, solar and mini hydro empower communities, particularly when people are also provided with training on how to maintain the technologies. Even simple technologies such as solar lighting can vastly improve people’s lives. The IEA’s 2010 Energy Poverty report notes that,

“in a high energy price and climate conscious world, it makes sense for governments tackling the energy poverty challenge to choose a course consistent with long term sustainable development goals, rather than choose the energy technologies and mix used by OECD countries in the 1950s and 1960s.”6

This is not rocket science – it is common sense, but it will take some planning. Sub-Saharan Africa has an immense opportunity to leapfrog polluting technologies and go directly to a decentralised energy model that utilises local renewable energy sources, limits reliance on fossil fuels and empowers communities. Africa has a proven ability to leapfrog technologies with the widespread use of mobile phones instead of landlines. I have no doubt that it will be done again with decentralised energy generation.

 


  1. Szabo, S., et al. (2013) Sustainable Energy Planning: Leapfrogging the energy poverty gap in Africa. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 28, Pp. 501-509. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Mackenzie, A. (2014) CERA Week 2014 – Energy, Commodities and the Global Economy. Houston, 4 March 2014, p. 1 http://www.bhpbilliton.com/home/investors/reports/Documents/2014/140304_CERASpeech.pdf 

  4. Mini hydro can be defined as less than 1MW in capacity and would usually serve small communities. In contrast, large scale hydro on the scale of the Three Gorges Dam in China can be up to 22,000MW in capacity. 

  5. Szabo, S., et al (2013), op. cit. 

  6. OECD/IEA (2010) Energy Poverty, How to make modern energy access universal p. 14. http://www.iea.org/media/weowebsite/energydevelopment/weo2010_poverty-1.pdf 




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