Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Way to Get Power to the World’s Poor Without Making Climate Change Worse - by David Roberts

Angaza in Africa (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
Back on October, I did a couple of posts ... on the Scylla and Charybdis of modern times:  energy, poverty, and climate change.  On one hand, nearly a third of the human family lacks access to basic energy services like light, refrigeration, and charging for cell phones (which have become a necessity almost everywhere).  On the other hand, lifting all of those people up to the level of energy access enjoyed by wealthy Westerners, even the least wealthy and most thrifty of wealthy Westerners, would produce enough carbon pollution to fry the planet.

Debate around this issue has been somewhat polarized, since the gloomy assumption shared by both sides is that if you avoid one danger, you run headlong into the other.  More energy for the poor means more climate pollution.  It’s Scylla or Charybdis, a choice of what (or who) to sacrifice.

But a new paper in Nature Climate Change brings a welcome note of calm and hope to the proceedings.  It’s somewhat technical, but boiled down, it does two key things.

First, it shows that on-grid and off-grid technologies are not distinct choices but a continuum, a ladder of energy access, everything from consistent grid access to partial grid access to mini- or micro-grids to home solar systems.  And second, it shows how at least the first few steps up that ladder can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The authors begin by demonstrating two things I discussed in my earlier posts:  first, that electricity access is directly correlated with quality of life; and second, that there are limitations on the expansion of centralized grids that have left millions with insufficient energy access, and threatens to leave millions that way even decades into the future.

One purpose of the paper is to argue that new policies and technologies make it possible to fill that access gap.  Here’s what they envision:

Combined with policies recommended by the International Energy Agency (IEA), new technologies can bring everyone now lacking energy access onto the energy ladder.

What enables this shift is an intersection of several trends, including:
  • much cheaper solar panels, batteries, and other distributed-energy tech,
  • hyper-efficient end-use appliances,
  • new models of financing that allow people to pay as they go (like they do with liquid fuels) rather than muster large chunks of capital up front,
  • developments in information technology that reduce the transaction costs of coordination among small-scale energy users and producers.
These trends can come together behind a nonlinear shift in how energy works in the developing world.

Read more at A Way to Get Power to the World’s Poor Without Making Climate Change Worse

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