History Shows That Distributed Energy Is Not the Best Way to Solve Energy Poverty, Argues New Report
Past is not prologue when it comes to expanding energy access to countries that need it most.
That is one of the central conclusions of a new report, Energy for Human Development, which was released by the Oakland-based Breakthrough Institute. Written by Ted Nordhaus, Shaiyra Devi and Alex Trembath, the report examines the factors that have been consistently present to enable modernization and an improvement in living standards.
The authors argue that the process of modernization, which is accompanied by industrialization, has literally been fueled by abundant energy — most of it coal and oil, although natural gas, hydroelectric power and nukes have contributed as well.
According to the authors, investments in energy to support commercial and industrial enterprises have always come before efforts to extend energy access to residential users. Put another way, devoting resources to channel energy to job-creating factories and businesses has been a recipe to enrich society generally and — as a consequence — to make it possible for individuals and families to reap the benefits of modernization.
“It is the investments in commercial and industrial activity that allow people to generate income to purchase appliances in their homes and that allow people to connect to the grid in the first place,” said Alex Trembath, one of the report’s authors, in an interview.
But that approach is not the one favored in recent years by the World Bank and innumerable Western NGOs, argue the authors. Instead, their focus has been to tackle energy poverty at the household level by investing primarily in technologies like microgrids, solar and batteries that don’t need central grids and utility companies.
Energy consumption, not access
In short, the report makes the case that recent initiatives to address energy poverty ignore what has worked in the past, and instead rely on technology fixes made possible by the dramatic price reductions in solar, microgrids and batteries. Furthermore, Trembath says this approach — and a focus on energy access rather than providing sufficient energy for advances in societal wealth and health — won’t lead to substantial reductions in poverty.
“The conversation is not technically about energy for human development. It’s about energy poverty versus energy access,” he said.
Access through microgrids and solar often means enough energy to charge a cellphone or run a fan. Those steps matter at the individual level, said Trembath, but they’re not transformative.
“Those are not holistic, comprehensive solutions to poverty, which is not just a household phenomenon; it’s a society-wide phenomenon,” he said. “If you want to address poverty and security and human well-being, then we continue to think these historically successful modernization processes are important.”
That doesn’t mean the report’s authors are dismissing the value of clean, distributed energy or advocating a massive build-out of coal plants. After all, when the Breakthrough Institute was founded in 2007, it was committed to promoting technology innovation and policies that make clean energy so cheap fossil fuels are rendered obsolete. That goal remains the same.
But the demands of poverty reduction complicate that quest.
“We want zero-carbon energy and we want next-generation energy. But very often in poor countries, things like oil, natural gas and coal — and depending on how you define dirty energy, even big hydro — are often an immediate benefit to poor societies,” said Trembath.