Is energy access simply modern colonialism?

770 million people globally lack access to electricity. They’re predominantly in developing nations. Despite international commitments to energy equity, like the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the dominant view is that electricity access for these folks will be a slow and expensive process.

On July 14th, the Carbon Tracker Initiative published a report titled Reach for the Sun, which challenges this view. They forecast that 88% of the growth in global electricity demand between 2019 and 2040 will come from emerging markets. Moreover, demand for fossil fuel generation in those markets has already, or is about to, peak. Those countries are investing in renewables.

They divide the emerging markets up into four groups:

  1. China, which is nearly half the demand for electricity, and 39% of the expected growth.
  2. Coal and gas importers, such as India or Vietnam, which account for 1/3 of the demand for electricity, and nearly half of the growth.
  3. Coal and gas exporters, like Russia and Indonesia, which are 16% of the electricity demand, but only 10% of the forecast growth.
  4. Fragile states, like Nigeria and Iraq, which account for 3% of demand, and about the same percentage of growth.

Carbon Tracker makes the case that emerging markets will leapfrog developed nations in renewable energy deployment as they modernize their economies. With little to no legacy generation infrastructure in place, it makes sense to build out with renewables. Moreover, the added attraction of energy independence makes this a strongly preferable path.

Developed nations in North America and Europe have the disadvantages of:

  1. Sunk costs in the form of coal and gas generation infrastructure.
  2. Political headwinds as vested interests in fossil fuel industry players work against renewables.
  3. Economic headwinds slowing down deployment of renewables as comparitively low growth in demand makes financial cases difficult.

The report is tremendously detailed. There is much to digest here.

The most extraordinary takeaway for me, though, was the similarity between 19th century colonialism, and today’s oligarchy of fossil fuel producing businesses and nations. Colonialism is the control of one group of people by another, generally by establishing colonies of settlers, for the purpose of economic exploitation. Developing nations export raw materials, and in some cases finished goods to the West. Energy independence is an inarguable benefit for them. Yet Western interests have actively sought to thwart renewable deployment in developing nations in order to continue to extract energy “rents” from these economies.

Is this modern colonialism? You tell me.


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.