Affordable electricity

Reliable electricity is key to lifting people out of poverty

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Western environmentalists too often overlook the positive impacts that fossil fuels have on society, according to a new piece in the Wall Street Journal. The ability to generate affordable and reliable electricity is essential for industrialisation- which is the cornerstone of economic growth and development.

Today, around 80 percent of the world’s energy needs are met using hydrocarbons. The rapid growth in energy access, particularly in countries such as China and India, has been driven by the use of coal and gas.

Cheap energy helps power labour-saving and life-protecting technologies for the betterment of the world, such as air-conditioning, modern medicine, and transport.

Energy is vital for economic prosperity, with the science writer Ronald Bailey highlighting that it is in “rich democratic countries” that use their natural resources where “the air and water are becoming cleaner, forests are expanding, food is abundant, education is universal, and women’s rights respected.”

Dramatic increases in agricultural output has been driven by the use of fossil fuels. The availability of cheap energy ensures that a smaller proportion of the workforce can produce more food to feed a growing population. This explains why countries with poor electricity access continue to experience hunger and famine.

In contrast, alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, are too unreliable to support heavy industry and manufacturing which provide well-paid and skilled manufacturing jobs.

According to Wall Street Journal, fossil fuels have had a net-positive effect on society- because it provides dependable and affordable energy access- allowing society to live healthier and more fulfilling lives.

Energy access in 2018 – here’s what you need to know

Energy access in 2018 – here’s what you need to know

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Do you have access to reliable electricity in your home? Over a billion people are still living in the dark, forced to make do with dim and dirty fuels for lighting and cooking, placing an intolerable burden on their health, prosperity and quality of life. It’s why the UN has earmarked universal electricity access as one its key Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

So how is the world getting on?

A new report tracking progress has just been published by a host of global institutions, including the International Energy Agency, the World Bank and the World Health Organisation. It provides an extremely useful statistical overview of what’s working and where the world is falling short.

Here are the key findings:

1. The world is not on track to meet the 2030 target

On current trends, 8 percent of the global population will not have access to electricity by 2030. That means yet another generation growing up in the dark, overwhelmingly in sub-Saharan Africa.

2. Good news in Latin America and India

Three quarters of Latin American countries are on track to achieve universal access by 2020. The region will have achieved near universal access by 2030, with the exception of Haiti which will have 90 percent access rate.

Coal-powered India is the star of the show on energy access, providing electricity to 30 million people a year between 2010 and 2016 – more than any other country in the world.

3. A mixed picture in sub-Saharan Africa

Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania have made significant progress, increasing access rates by over 3 percent a year between 2010 and 2016. However other African countries languish far behind, with South Sudan at the bottom of the table on just 9 percent with access to power.

4. But grounds for optimism – we know what works

“The experience of countries that have substantially increased the number of people with electricity in a short space of time holds out real hope that we can reach the billion people who still live without power,” says Riccardo Puliti, Senior Director for Energy and Extractives at the World Bank and one of the authors of the report.

He adds, “We know that with the right policies, a commitment to both grid electrification and off-grid solutions like solar home systems, well-tailored financing structures, and mobilization of the private sector, huge gains can be made in only a few years.”

An International Solar Alliance cannot solve energy poverty on its own

An International Solar Alliance cannot solve energy poverty on its own

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Britain has announced it is joining the International Solar Alliance (ISA): a group of countries pledged to increase the use of solar power in the developing world. The ISA plans to help mobilise $1 trillion of investment in affordable solar energy by 2030.

As part of this drive, the UK government has committed to support the development of solar-powered water pumps, giving farmers an alternative to dirty and expensive diesel pumps. The UK has also said it will help provide solar mini-grids to villages that don’t yet have access to mains electricity.

This is welcome news, but Britain should be realistic about what these kinds of power projects can actually achieve. Studies have shown that solar mini-grids have only a limited impact on rural poverty. The ability to charge a phone or power a lightbulb for a few hours a day of course improves people’s quality of life, but it does little to raise their earning power. With current technology, solar can’t yet power industrial development, the hospitals, factories, airports, railways and broadband infrastructure that a country needs to escape poverty.

It’s why, when offered a choice between off-grid solar and a connection to the grid, rural communities generally opt for the grid. Think about it. If you wouldn’t put up with just a few hours of power each day with lights off at 6pm, why should the world’s poorest?

New technology to clean up fossil fuels highlighted in UN report could be the next big American export

New technology to clean up fossil fuels highlighted in UN report could be the next big American export

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Could coal and gas power actually allow for greater use of renewable energy, with lower overall emissions? The idea may seem paradoxical, but that’s the conclusion of a UN working group set up to examine ways of making fossil fuels cleaner.

The “Group of Experts on Cleaner Electricity Production from Fossil Fuels, which operates under the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe secretariat, recently published a report outlining four renewable-fossil fuel technology combinations that would result in substantially more renewable energy being deployed overall. In each case the idea is to combine the big benefits of fossil fuel power – reliability and scale – with the low-emissions advantages of renewables.

The four main options are outlined below:

1. A concentrated solar power/coal power hybrid

Concentrated solar power (CSP) plants have been pioneered by Spain and the US. They use a giant array of mirrors to reflect highly concentrated solar rays at a central tower containing a boiler. Steam from the superheated water then drives a turbine to produce electricity.

The report says that a CSP plant could feed extra heat into the boiler of a coal-fired power station, essentially allowing the coal plant to produce the same amount of power by burning less coal. This means a cut in overall emissions.

2. Coal gasification plants with carbon capture and storage powered by wind

Coal gasification plants convert solid coal into synthetic natural gas, allowing the coal to be burnt at half the emissions of conventional coal power stations. These kinds of plants are ideal for carbon capture and storage (CCS), as it’s much easier to capture CO2 during the gasification stage than the burning stage

CCS can deliver emission reductions of up to 90 percent. However to work, CCS technology requires extra energy – over above the energy that the power station is already producing. This means it has to either generate less power for the same amount of coal – which ruins the economics – or get the extra energy from somewhere else.

According to the report, wind turbines could provide this additional power at no extra cos (since wind is free once the turbines are built) and with zero emissions.

3. Solar-aided carbon capture and storage

Concentrated solar power like wind, could also be used to offset the “energy penalty” incurred by using CCS with coal. A large solar array would collect heat energy which would then power the “stripper” used to chemically strip out the CO2 from coal once it has been burnt.

The deserts of North Africa could be a prime candidate for these systems in future.

4. Using wind and solar to produce hydrogen for coal gasification plants

The biggest disadvantage of wind and solar power is that they cannot produce “dispatchable” electricity, i.e. electricity that is on demand ready for use whenever needed. What they can do however is produce hydrogen, by running an electrical current through water.

According to the report, hydrogen from wind or solar could then be fed into a coal gasification plant. By reducing the amount of coal needed to produce synthetic gas, this would reduce the emissions from such a plant by an estimated 57 percent.

This UN report comes in the wake of America’s announcement that it wants to help lead a “global alliance of countries willing to make fossil fuels cleaner rather than abandoning them,” in the words of US Energy Secretary Rick Perry. The US believes it is immoral to ask developing countries, where millions on people live without energy access to give up on fossil fuels.

All four of the options outlined in the report are being intensively researched in the US, which has funded pilot projects aimed at demonstrating each of the concepts. These technologies could well form the basis of future knowledge-transfers between the members of the cleaner fossil fuels alliance.

There is still a real need for fossil fuel-powered development in the world. By deploying the latest technology, we can secure the benefits of that development and still deliver on climate commitments, making full use of the world’s wind and solar resources.

How the electricity deficit is causing deforestation

How the electricity deficit is causing deforestation

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According to the WHO, around 3 billion people still cook and heat their homes using fires or basic stoves. The resulting indoor pollution has a devastating impact on human health, equivalent to smoking 400 cigarettes an hour.

What’s less often appreciated is the ruinous environmental cost of burning fuel indoors.

In many parts of the developing world, charcoal is the main fuel source for fires and stoves, and the charcoal trade has become a major driver of deforestation.

Take Zambia, a country in which 78 percent of the population still don’t have access to electricity.

Zambia relies almost exclusively on hydro-power, but because of droughts, 8 to 14 hour power cuts have become a part of everyday life. Late last year virtually the whole country was plunged into darkness, not once but twice.

All of this means that charcoal is big business, as even households in electrified urban areas need it to see them through the blackouts. Forestry NGO Forest Trends says that each year Zambia loses 250,000-300,000 hectares of forested land, mainly to charcoal production.

Yet unchecked deforestation has serious environmental consequences, including soil erosion, declining water quality and loss of biodiversity.

No-one should be forced to destroy their health or their local environment, just so they can cook for their families. It’s time that countries like Zambia had an electricity supply that’s reliable, affordable and universal.

One country is doing more on energy access than anyone else

One country is doing more on energy access than anyone else

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Which country or institution has the best record on tackling energy poverty?

It’s not the US, UK or the EU. Nor is it the IMF or the World Bank. In fact, according to a new study from Boston University, the answer is China.

Two Chinese state banks, the China Development Bank and China Import-Export Bank, together lent $25.6 billion to global energy projects last year alone, the study estimates.

This compares to the $22.6 billion that the World Bank made available for energy.

And unlike the World Bank, which restricts financing for fossil fuels in the poorest countries, China has taken a pragmatic approach to access, lending to hydro, oil and coal projects across Africa and Asia. This includes projects like the China-backed Lamu coal plant in Kenya, a huge dam in Ivory Coast, and new gas plants in Nigeria.

The findings will confirm US fears that America has fallen behind China in the battle for energy influence.

The BUILD Act, a piece of legislation currently before Congress, aims to close this gap by making it easier for US development institutions to fund large infrastructure projects overseas. The US has also proposed an international coalition for “cleaner fossil fuels” and invited developing countries to join.

New US development agency could be a game-changer in the fight against energy poverty

New US development agency could be a game-changer in the fight against energy poverty

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A new bill before the US Congress could lead to a dramatic improvement in America’s ability to fund large-scale power projects overseas, helping to counter growing Chinese influence in Africa and Asia.

The Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development Act (BUILD Act) is intended to put US development finance on a par with China, which is making massive infrastructure investments in the developing world through its development finance institutions.

The BUILD Act would double the amount that America can lend to projects in the developing world from $29 billion to $60 billion, while also bringing a host of US development agencies under roof as part of a new turbo-charged development finance corporation (DFC). It will also support US companies that want to export to low and middle-income countries.

Significantly, the new DFC would have the power to make investments as well as lend, meaning it could take on bigger projects in riskier environments. This opens the door to more US investment in large-scale power generation, which the current Administration has earmarked as a top development priority.

The White House is keen to ensure that American and not Chinese energy technology is used to bring electricity to the 1.2 billion people who currently live without it. At a recent infrastructure conference, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry said: “sharing more of our energy abundance has tremendous implications here and abroad. Geopolitically, it frees our allies from reliance on unstable or unfriendly sources, and it reduces our trade deficit. Domestically, it will be a catalyst for further job creation and spur economic growth up, down, and beyond the supply chain.”

The US is also clear that a serious plan to achieve universal access has to include fossil fuels as well as renewables. As Perry says: “the world, especially developing economies, will continue to need fossil fuels, as over a billion people on the planet live without access to electricity,” he said. “Look those people in the eyes that are starving and tell them you can’t have electricity because as a society we decided fossil fuels were bad.”

Energy access fits perfectly with Britain's new results-focused approach to international development

Energy access fits perfectly with Britain’s new results-focused approach to international development

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International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt has an op-ed in today’s Telegraph, setting out her new strategy for British aid. It’s an important insight into the UK government’s thinking on this issue, one with clear implications for the energy access agenda.

Mordaunt’s first point is that the Department for International Development (DfID) will now work alongside the Department for International Trade to build a “bold new Brexit-ready proposition to boost trade and investment with developing countries.”

This shift matters because energy technology is one area where Britain has key expertise, in everything from carbon capture to renewables to low-emissions coal. By including energy technology in future British aid packages we can help improve energy access, spur economic growth and boost jobs at home and abroad.

Second, Mordaunt says that Britain will no longer finance good works that developing countries are capable of funding themselves. Again, this points to energy. Large-scale energy infrastructure projects such as power plants or power lines can prove transformational in the developing world – a single medium-sized power plant is estimated to support 800,000 jobs  for example. Yet many overseas governments find these projects hard to finance.

Third, Mordaunt says that aid spending should contribute directly towards tackling “the issues that matter most to the British people.”

Issues that the public care about, like disease, mass-migration and conflict do not respect national borders, yet development experts agree that building a reliable power infrastructure is the single best aid intervention we can make to head off those problems before they reach our shores.

The energy access agenda is a natural fit for the UK’s new results-focused approach to international aid. We need to send Penny Mordaunt a clear message: if you want to spend taxpayers’ money well, spend it on energy poverty.

IEA: energy access is essential for development

IEA: energy access is essential for development

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The International Energy Agency (IEA) has reiterated how essential energy is for development

The IEA’s World Energy Outlook, the go-to report for NGOs and energy professionals alike, made clear that you cannot have improve the lives of the world’s poor without 24/7 access to power.

“Energy access is pervasive to all aspects of human life” because it not only “fuels economic activity and boost productivity,” but also provides the necessary infrastructure vital for a happy and healthy life: from “eduction, water and sanitation”, to “more resilient settlements and infrastructure.”

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of specific targets to help the UN tackle poverty and ensure long-term prosperity. The IEA believes that you cannot meet these targets without “universal access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy” whhich should remain at the heart of the strategy for global development.

Energy demand is expected to grow by 60 percent up to 2040, with 85 per cent of this growth coming from developing countries. If the world is serious about tackling global poverty, it needs to bring electricity to 1.1 billion people.

Green movement accused of “halting the expansion of cheap power to poor countries”

Green movement accused of “halting the expansion of cheap power to poor countries”

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At the UN climate change conference in Bonn, nuclear power advocate Michael Shellenberger has laid into the environmental movement, accusing them of “halting the expansion of cheap power to poor countries.”

In a panel session entitled “Nuclear Power? Are Renewables Enough” Mr Shellenberger, who runs US energy policy think tank the Breakthrough Institute, was highly critical of the environmental and economic benefits of wind and solar power.

He pointed out that Germany has spent $222 billion on wind and solar since 2000, yet last year the proportion of energy generated from these renewable sources actually fell because it wasn’t sunny or windy enough.

Addressing the claim that batteries can allow us to store renewable energy for later use, Shellenberger argued that the technology just isn’t there yet:

“We added up all the storage in California to back up the grid and we have 23 minutes of storage. And that’s if you count every battery in every car and truck.”

He also noted that solar panels end up creating 300 times more toxic waste than solar panels per unit of energy, as they involve the use of toxic metals such as cadmium, chromium and lead.

According to Shellenberger, nuclear and hydro are the only technologies capable of delivering reliable, 24/7 electricity while still cutting carbon on the scale needed to avert climate change.

In seeking to block these technologies, he suggested that the environmental movement, which is ideologically wedded to wind and solar, was harming the interests of the global poor.