Energy poverty is a global issue. Access to energy, especially in developing areas, is severely lacking. Globally, an estimated 1.2 billion people have absolutely no access to electricity, and an additional 2.7 billion rely on the use of traditional biomass to cook.
Burning traditional biomass, which includes wood, agricultural by-products and dung, causes respiratory diseases that kill over 3.5 million annually, which is twice the amount of deaths caused by malaria every year.
Solving the problem of energy poverty is central to the goal of eliminating global poverty, but there is an extensive and politically-charged debate on the best way to approach solutions.
Tensions can run high in renewable sources such as hydro, solar and wind energy versus fossil fuels such as coal and oil. The potential role of nuclear power is also a significant consideration in the mix. Even beyond issues of energy sources, questions remain about whether energy generation should be largely centralized, or be more locally distributed?
This aspect of the question was highlighted in a recent debate held by the Brookings Institute. Ted Nordhaus is the co-founder and Research Director of the Breakthrough institute that is in favor of a more centralized model of energy development.
Nordhaus pointed out that in the past no country has had universal access to energy without the majority of the population moving out of agriculture and into cities, pointing out that growth in off-farm employment is crucial to this development.
In response, Daniel Kamme, Director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at UC Berkley described the numerous technology innovations such as micro-grids and improved batteries that make a more distributed energy model more viable.
He emphasized that both centralized and distributed grids can coexist, and that rejection of smaller grids in favor of larger centralized ones is “to bet on the past, not bet on the future.”
A centralized model is more in line with coal-fired power plants and other fossil-fuel reliant methods, while a more dispersed approach has a higher reliance on renewable resources.
Proponents of fossil fuels such as Dr. Robert Bezdek, president of the consulting firm MISI, argue that the tried-and-true method of using coal is a much more reliable way to solve energy poverty, and that better scrubbing technology has improved the cleanliness of coal so that it is more sustainable.
Opponents of this viewpoint argue that this perception is an antiquated, one-size-fits-all model, and neglects to consider the level of innovation that exists now in contrast to the industrial revolution.
It is true according to World Bank data that least developed countries on average use renewable sources for 40.8 percent of their power generation, which is about twice as much as high-income countries.
Overall, the correct approach to solving energy poverty will continue to be debated until a solution is found. The answer to energy poverty must be sufficient to provide energy for both personal and commercial use in a sustainable manner.
– Adam Gonzalez