Energy Equity

“Energy poverty” is lack of access to modern energy services. I became intrigued by the idea a few days ago listening to an episode of The Energy Gang podcast. The topic was the Equity Outcome of Decarbonization with guest Dr. Destenie Nock.

One tends to think of energy poverty as a developing nation problem. It’s true, after all, that the vast majority of those without access to energy (759M people) are in developing countries like Nigeria, Pakistan, the DRC, Ethiopia and India. For context, the entire generating capacity for sub-saharan Africa is approximately 58GW, spread across a population over a billion people. Annual electricity consumption is about 488 kWh per person, or about 5% of the United States. 600M people have no access whatsoever.

But is it just a developing country problem?

Dr. Nock challenged listeners to think about energy poverty in a different way. Are you energy poor if you live in a developed country? What if you spend a significant portion of your pay check on the power bill? Put on extra sweaters instead of turning the heat up in the winter? Or, as we have seen recently, suffer the extreme effects of a heat wave due to the high cost of electricity for cooling? Maybe even end up hospitalized, or dead.

Renewable energy, especially solar, is frequently put forward as an answer to energy poverty in the developing world. Off grid solutions promise to decentralize generation, and bring power to places that utilities can’t or won’t serve. Renewable energy also offers a route to weaning the developing world away from fossil fuels, coal especially.

In the developed world, rooftop solar is often seen as a way to reduce the power bill. However, some in California say that rooftop solar households are disproportionately wealthy and white, and have put the burden of the cost of the energy transition onto the shoulders of the poor. “Utilities are cynically playing the equity card”, they claim. The numbers seem to back them up, as wealthy households reap the double benefits of subsidies, and reduced utility costs.

Transitioning to a clean, renewable and global energy economy holds out huge promise. Let’s make sure we get the equity part of that promise right, and lift the neediest up at the same time. After all, if 1.1 billion poor Africans live in countries that are burning coal and oil to generate power, it won’t matter what we here in the west do. The planet will still get hotter.