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Coal Tries, Fails to Deliver Solution to Energy Poverty

UK Department for International Development/flickr

Energy poverty produces “hours of drudgery” and high mortality for the 1.2 billion people around the world with no access to electricity, and the 2.8 billion who burn charcoal, wood or other biomass for cooking and heating. But that doesn’t mean coal is a solution to the problem, Vox climate columnist David Roberts writes in a post republished by IEEFA.

“Energy poverty stands in the way of better health, better education, and better jobs,” Roberts writes. “Development experts increasingly agree that there is no way to end extreme poverty without making energy access universal,” a target the United Nations and the World Bank have adopted as one of their 2030 Sustainable Development Goals [1].

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With natural gas and renewables shutting it out of markets across the developed world, the coal industry is turning to developing countries as its only hope for survival, “has glommed on to the surge of interest in energy poverty, and is now selling itself as a solution,” he notes. But “building more coal plants and hooking them to those grids won’t help these households at all.” The quickest, most effective path to greater energy access is distributed energy—from solar and biodigesters, to batteries and microgrids.

“These micro-energy solutions will not offer a level of energy access equal to what’s available on a strong centralized grid, but they are more than enough for energy-poor communities to take the first few steps up the energy access ladder, which are huge in terms of welfare and health,” Roberts states. “Eventually, those microgrids can be linked up and connected to larger (low-carbon) power plants, so these rural areas can have real, industrialized economies. But in the meantime, distributed energy can reach them a hell of a lot faster than larger power plants and central grids.”

There are complications and disputes on the road to this distributed energy future, Roberts acknowledges. “But coal’s role in all this is not complicated. Locally, coal kills people through air and water pollution. Globally, coal kills people by exacerbating climate change. It’s unconscionable for any country to permit further coal expansion if there are reasonable alternatives.”