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.


Fossil fuel lobbyists fight city natural gas bans.

In 1969 I went to kindergarten at Central Public School in Ontario. It was built in 1882 at a cost of $12,000. Today it’s the oldest remaining building in the city with its original design.

View 2 of Central Public School
Credit: Orillia Matters

Central was heated with coal. I remember the coal chute at the back of the building, and the dust that seemed to always be present, but especially when a delivery came. My parents homes were all heated with oil, and I can still conjure up the smell of the fumes on the days when the oil truck would arrive with a delivery. The first home I purchased was also heated with oil, but since then my homes have been gas or electric. My experience is common, as energy source shifts have occurred throughout the 20th century.

Credit: RMI

Cleantechnica published a reference last week to a June RMI brief on how state politicians are moving to block local governments from adopting clean energy requirements for new home builds. Cities in many parts of the United States are simply stepping up and mandating clean air requirements. Berkley CA has banned natural gas in new construction, as have Seattle WA, Norman OK, Brookline MA and at least 45 other cities. Recently, 19 states have passed laws prohibiting these bans. The states use “consumer choice” as the justification, but RMI claims that these efforts are thinly disguised lobbying efforts by the fossil fuel industry.

RMI makes the point that “consumer choice” is a disingenuous argument, since gas companies won’t run a pipeline for just one home. Energy choice is a decision that is made collectively by a group of homeowners at a neighborhood, or even potentially at a municipal level. More importantly, though, the decision to hamstring regulatory efforts is a set-back for net-zero commitments nationwide. Just as cities are now able to require EV charge capacity in all new builds, they should also be able to prohibit gas in new builds.

There will no doubt be legal challenges as cities have the right to enact all kinds of regulation that state level governments shouldn’t be meddling with. It’s also worth noting precedents dating back centuries that cities can enact these bans. The City of London, for example, banned the burning of coal over air quality concerns in the year 1306.


Long Read: Statistical Review of World Energy.

BP’s 70th annual Statistical Review of World Energy came out this past week. This data-rich documents is 70 pages of detailed, country by country, statistics about world energy capacity, production, and consumption with commentary. Here are some of the highlights.


Due to COVID-19, last year saw the largest decline in energy consumption since World War 2. Consumption fell by 4.5%, primarily due to the shutdown of the transportation industry. Oil consumption fell by 9.2%, while natural gas fell only 2.3%. But renewables — solar and wind — had their best year ever as capacity increased by 50%. BP themselves were surprised by this, saying “we materially underestimated the growth of wind and solar power over the last five years”. But before we break out the bubbly, let’s put that in context. Even with that super result, renewables are still a small fraction of the global energy mix. Non-emitting energy (Nuclear, Hydroelectric, Solar and Wind) are still just 16.8% of the overall energy mix.

Primary Energy Consumption (EJ – Exajoules)

The world is finally weaning itself off coal. Coal generation declined by 405 TWh, which was almost directly correlated to the 358 TWh increase in solar and wind generation. We are truly seeing coal-fired generation being phased out in favor of renewables.

On a country by country basis, the biggest global consumers of energy were the United States (87.79 EJ) and China (145.46 EJ), or 15.8% and 26.1% of global energy consumption. Nobody else comes close, except if you start to combine regions. All of Europe, for example, consumed 77.15 EJ, a little less than the USA. It’s also worth noting that the United States consumed 15.8% of the global energy supply, but has just 4.25% of the population. China consumed 26.1% of the worlds energy, but has 18.5% of the population.

Globally, each human on the planet averages annual consumption of 71.4 Gigajoules (GJ) of electricity. However, Canadians (361GJ), Qataris (594 GJ), Saudi Arabians (303 GJ), Emeratis (423 GJ), and Australians (218 GJ) all are good examples. Or maybe it’s just the weather. Singapore has no natural resources, and Singaporeans use an astonishing 583.9 GJ per person of energy annually, second only to Qataris.


Global carbon emissions from energy use also fell, and even more dramatically than energy use itself. Carbon emissions fell by 6.3%, while energy consumption declined by just 4.5%.

Among the big economies, the US generates 18.3% of its energy from non-emitting sources, China 15.7%, and Europe 28.8%. China is still heavily dependent on coal, and Europe has been helped out by a favorable shift to renewable plus the fact that a whopping 36% of France’s energy comes from nuclear. Canada, often in the news because of it’s foot-dragging on emissions targets, does surprisingly well with 35.4% of it’s energy coming from non-emitting sources. This is due to the outsize impact of the country’s hydro-electric industry. Canada, with fewer than 40 million people, is the second largest producer of hydro-electric power globally, only surpassed by China.

The biggest absolute GHG emitters are (in order) China with 9,899.3 megatonnes, the United States (4,457.2), Indonesia (2,302.3), and Russia (1,482.2). Nearly a third of all emissions are from China. This is no surprise, given China’s massive energy appetite, but it’s still sobering nonetheless. Let’s put these into context, though. The US, with 330M people, is a much bigger emitter, per capita, than China. If the Chinese were to pollute the way America does, then their emissions would be close to 19,000 megatonnes. And all of Europe, which is a population of roughly half of China, emits just 3,596.8 megatonnes.


The geopolitical world of energy stands out clearly in this report.

The United States is well established economically, and has small reserves of oil (68.8M barrels), about 6.7% of the worlds gas reserves (12.6 trillion cubic metres), and almost a quarter of the worlds coal reserves (248,941 million tonnes). At current rates of consumption, the US will exhaust its oil in about 10 years, and gas in 15 years. The US is the “Saudi Arabia of coal”, but most of that resource will stay in the ground.

China, by contrast, sits on a paltry 26M barrels of oil, 8.4 trillion cubic meters of gas, and 143,197 million tonnes of coal. China uses less oil annually than the US, but has only about 4 years reserves remaining. The country uses less than half the gas of the United States today, and thus has 25 years of reserves remaining. And they burn a lot of coal to generate power.

Consequentially, the US is a net exporter of oil and gas. In contrast China imports nearly all the oil and gas it needs to meet its energy needs, and China’s energy needs are growing at a blistering 3.8% annually.

The Chinese have been reluctant to give up coal electric generation, as the one energy source they have in abundance is coal. It is the one tool they have which gives them a measure of energy independence. It should therefore be unsurprising that China now leads the world in renewable power generation (#1 in hydroelectric, solar and wind), and new renewable capacity additions (in 2020 China accounted for 36% of new global solar capacity, and 38% of new global wind capacity). China has no choice. They cannot continue to generate electricity with coal. The global trend toward net-zero emissions means that Chinese companies risk being cut off from global export markets unless they can show that the carbon footprint of the products they sell is acceptable to their customers. Moreover, China cannot continue using coal to generate electricity at home without polluting its already fouled air even more.

It should also come as no surprise that 44% of the electric vehicles manufactured and sold in the world were sold in China. China is completely dependent on foreign oil. They cannot satisfy the growing appetite for vehicles domestically without an alternative to gasoline. They also cannot build the economy they want without the logistics in place to move goods from one location to another. They need electrified transportation more than any other economy globally.


Nuclear was a surprise. The top producer of nuclear energy in the world today is the United States, despite the unpopularity of nuclear domestically. 31% of the nuclear in use today is in the USA (7.39 EJ), although it is declining. The next largest producers of nuclear energy were China (3.25 EJ) and France (3.14 EJ). Few countries globally are adding nuclear capacity, the most notable exception being China, where nuclear (pre-COVID) was growing at a rate of 16.7% annually. Again, unsurprising that China would be building this capacity.


There are three inescapable conclusions in BP’s numbers.

The first is that there is little economic incentive in the west (Europe and North America) to replace fossil fuel generation. The energy demands of the west’s stable economies are growing slowly, having shifted most manufacturing overseas. The western economies’ focus on emissions are largely domestic politics, centered around climate change risk management. To make the transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy will require deft political skills, regulatory frameworks, and a continuation of the economic incentives we have seen.

The second is that Asia-Pacific, having become the center of global manufacturing, must navigate growing their energy use carefully. Global supply chains originate in Asia-Pacific, today. Consequently the region has a ravenous appetite for energy, but must find ways to meet that appetite and grow consumption while managing and reducing GHG emissions. Expect to see this region lead renewable energy deployment globally for some time, as they deal with the double incentive of managing climate change risk, while rapidly growing economies to satisfy western consumers needs.

And finally, the two remaining superpowers of the world, China and the United States, are quite different in their approaches.

America is divided. America has a substantial fossil fuel export business, many politicians support that business, and American free speech rights permit climate deniers to manipulate the public by spreading disinformation about the severity of the climate crisis, and the value of solutions being proposed. The fossil fuel lobby is strong! However, America has the luxury of being able to dither simply by virtue of the fact that it has secure domestic energy resources, and business seems to be stepping into the leadership vacuum in a way that Washington is apparently not able to.

China, in contrast, has a more immediate crisis and as a result seems to have a more unified approach. The Chinese don’t have the energy independence that America has. As a result, they are simply “getting on with it”, rapidly deploying renewables, building electrified products and industry, and making plans to decarbonize generation by taking their coal plants off line. The pace at which China is weaning itself off coal is slower than some in the west want, yes, but it is happening.

The inescapable conclusion is that China is playing a “long game”, building expertise that will serve it well for generations. The rest of the world already buys much of its wind and solar generation capability from China. It’s not hard to see how cars and batteries will be next.


“Carbon-neutral” natural gas? Really?

Can a container ship filled with liquified natural gas be “carbon neutral”? Shell Oil and Cheniere Energy want you to believe that. In May, the two companies delivered a shipment of gas to Europe in which emissions associated with the upstream costs of processing and liquifying the gas were offset by carbon credits purchased from Shell’s portfolio of nature-based projects. Emissions were offset to the “FOB delivery point”. This means that Shell and Cheniere have offset the emissions all the way to the point of delivery, as indicated by this statement in their joint press release.

The companies worked together to offset the full lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with the LNG cargo by retiring nature-based offsets to account for the estimated carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions produced through the entire value chain, from production through use by the final consumer (all scopes).

Shell Oil Press Release, May 5 2021

Really carbon-neutral?

What they’re claiming is that independent of how the customer uses the product they’ve delivered, the product itself has been produced in a carbon-neutral fashion. And, of course, their shipping partners are eager to tout their new green credentials too. Astomos Energy, for example, put out a press release stating that they are now purchasing “carbon-neutral LPG”. The appetite for Cheniere’s new products was strong enough that they posted a 40% increase in revenues from a year ago, and bumped guidance, rewarding investors with a 74% increase in the stock price from this time last year.

Naturally, this has commentators crying foul. Salon labelled it a greenwashing scam. Cleantechnica simply said A tanker full of fossil fuels isn’t carbon neutral. That’s not how it works.

I agree.

Decarbonizing supply chains is hard.

What this illustrates, quite neatly in fact, is the complexity of decarbonizing supply chains. At Davos this year, the WEF unveiled a report titled “Net-Zero Challenge: the supply chain opportunity“. The central thesis was that 8 supply chains accounted for over 50% of the world’s emissions, and that decarbonizing those supply chains would have impact. The energy industry wasn’t one of the eight supply chains named directly. Why not? Energy is an input into every supply chain. You literally cannot decarbonize supply chains without decarbonizing energy itself.

Let that sink in.

It’s good that Shell and Cheniere have taken the small step of offsetting the emissions associated with creating and shipping their polluting products, even if the marketing of those products as net-zero LPG is deceitful. The next step is to decarbonize energy generation itself — Shell and Cheniere’s customers.

Policy is part of the answer

So how do you decarbonize energy itself? Aside from technology solutions, policy is an incredibly important tool. Yesterday the UNEP Net-Zero Alliance, a group of investment managers representing $6.6 trillion of assets under management, released a position paper calling on governments to adopt common approaches on emissions pricing, to apply emissions pricing to every sector of economies (not just the heavy emitters), to swiftly phase out fossil fuel subsidies, and to fund research and create incentives to decarbonize hard-to-abate sectors. This approach — carrot and stick — works. You can see it visually by checking out the current price of European Usage Allocations futures (as at July 7). Emissions in Europe are now nearly $60/ton, up from $20 in April.

EUA December Contract prices, courtesy Ember

What’s next?

We’re still a long way from where we need to be. Analysts say that the price today needs to be closer to $85, rising to $145 by 2030, in order to reach a 1.5C global warming target. Emissions pricing schemes still only apply to 17% of the world’s carbon emissions. So long as emissions prices stay low, and customers exist that aren’t covered by pricing schemes, there will be a market for green-washed inputs like (unfortunately) fossil fuels.

As individuals, there are are two actions we can take.

  1. When emissions trading becomes a political issue in your country, vote in favor of emissions markets, or cap-and-trade solutions. There will always be those who claim that “the market” is the solution. The market is clearly not infallible, as the Shell / Cheniere announcement shows. Vote for emissions trading schemes with teeth, not un-regulated markets.
  2. When you have the option, buy green energy from your local supplier. Do your homework first, though. Make sure that you aren’t being sold green-washed fossil fuel energy, but rather energy from non-emitting sources like wind, solar, or nuclear.

And Shell, Cheniere… we know you have to serve your shareholders, but shame on you for such cynical marketing tactics. We deserve better.



Electric vehicle critics will often tell you that the environmental cost of the batteries is the “dirty little secret” that nobody is telling you about. The claim is that the manufacturing impact of the batteries is so high that we might as well just keep burning gasoline. The origin of this statement is an early and flawed study from 2017.

Let’s examine their claim in more detail.

Battery trends

Battery technology is advancing rapidly. You can see this in the price curve. In December of last year, Bloomberg NEF reported the first instances of vehicle batteries priced at below $100/kWh. At $100, most analyses show EVs priced equivalently to internal combustion engines. For comparison, a decade early that price was $1100/kWh. That means that 10 years ago, the price of the 53 kWh battery in Tesla’s original roadster was over $50,000. It’s no wonder those early Roadsters were so expensive!

The environmental cost of manufacturing vehicle batteries is also falling. A recent study estimated the manufacturing impact of current battery technology at 75 kg CO2e/kWh of battery capacity, down from 89 kg in 2019.


The assertion made by the EV industry is that the increased environmental impact of manufacturing the vehicle is offset by the decreased impact of using the vehicle. Is that true?

To figure out the answer to that question, we need to know the CO2e impact of running a conventional vehicle vs an EV. Then, let’s add in the CO2e impact of the battery pack, divided over the expected lifetime of the battery, and we should have our answer.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that the manufacturing impact of a conventional vehicle and an EV is roughly the same, excepting that the EV has the added impact of the battery pack. It’s not entirely true, because the conventional vehicle has a higher carbon cost to build than the EV (without the battery), but for the sake of simplification, let’s assume that they are the same.

My previous vehicle, a 2015 Ford Fusion, averaged about 23 mpg in actual usage. Ford rated it for 28 mpg, but I tracked my gasoline purchases over the lifetime of the vehicle, and it was roughly 23 mpg. I may have a bit of a lead foot. Gasoline combustion produces an estimated 18.95 lbs of CO2e per gallon used. Annually, I drive around 10,000 miles, which means that car was producing 8,226 lbs of CO2e annually.

My new vehicle, the Tesla Model Y AWD, is rated by the EPA for 28 kWh / 100 miles of driving. The Tesla should use about 2,800 kWh of electricity to drive the 10,000 miles I drive in a year. Now all we need to know is the CO2e costs to generate the electricity. According to the EPA, in the United States, the electricity industry as a whole produced an average of 0.92 lbs of CO2e per kWh of electricity generated. So, assuming that my power utility emits the same CO2e as the EPA average electrical utility, my CO2e costs will be 2,576 lbs. More on that in a minute…

Miles Driven10,00010,000
Electricity Used0 kWh2,800 kWh
Fuel Used435 gal0 gal
Unit Emissions18.95 lbs / gal0.92 lbs / kWh
CO2e Emitted8,226 lbs2,576 lbs
Annual operating emissions comparison

So for me, my old Ford emitted 5,650 lbs more CO2e annually than my new Tesla does.

Now let’s get back to that battery pack. Recall that the manufacturing CO2e impact of a battery is about 75 kg CO2e / kWh of capacity. So manufacturing the Tesla’s 75 kWh battery will emit about 5,625 kg of CO2e, which converted to lbs is 12,375 lbs. And then we have a simple calculation.

Years to "break even" = Battery Manufacturing CO2e / Annual CO2e savings.  

So, for me, it will take about 2.2 years before the manufacturing impact of the battery is recovered completely.

My Utility is PSE

I buy my energy from Puget Sound Energy here in the King County, WA area. PSE’s generation mix is roughly 1/3 renewable, 1/3 coal, and 1/3 gas.

Coal2.2 lbs / kWh
Natural Gas1.0 lbs / kWh
Renewable0 lbs / kWh
Blend1.06 lbs / kWh

Compared to the national average, PSE is actually a pretty dirty utility. My Tesla driving will generate 2,968 lbs of CO2e annually. And my emissions “payback” will extend to 2.35 years. What a calamity!

Fortunately, PSE has a green energy option, which we have chosen for our household. For an extra $.01/kWh (about $15/mo) we buy an energy mix which is generated 95% from solar and wind, and 5% from biogas. Biogas has about the same emissions profile as NG, which means that the PSE clean energy option produces about 0.05 lbs CO2e / kWh. Some folks consider biogas neutral environmentally, but let’s leave that for another day. In any case, my new Tesla’s CO2e footprint using PSE green energy is now reduced to just 140 lbs CO2e annually, and the “pay back” time for the battery is now just 1.5 years.

Over the 5 years I owned the Fusion, I estimate my emissions at about 41,000 lbs CO2e. I expect the Tesla to be a third of that. Automobiles have a lifetime of about 200,000 miles. Over 200,000 miles the Ford will emit 165,000 lbs CO2e. And if I own the Tesla that long? 15,000.

Your numbers will vary, but the calculation is not hard to do. And no matter how you do the numbers, there simply is no case that the environmental impact of EV battery manufacture outweighs the benefit of not burning gasoline to run a vehicle.

Case closed.