Published on November 13th, 2014 | by Joshua S Hill27
Renewables, Not Coal, Way Out Of Energy Poverty In Africa
November 13th, 2014 by Joshua S Hill
Coal is “essential to meet the scale of Africa’s desperate need for electricity,” says Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest publicly traded coal company. However, a new analysis published by the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI) challenges these claims, finding instead that the falling costs of renewable power is the way out of energypoverty in Africa.
It’s a good old-fashioned “he said/she said” debate, but one that is going to pop up more and more as we continue to divest ourselves from fossil fuels.
Coal’s Only Arguments
In a piece written in August on the Advanced Energy For Life website — a site sponsored by Peabody Energy — Frank Clemente, PhD, wrote that “coal is essential to meet the scale of Africa’s desperate need for electricity.” In the end, Mr Clemente could only resort to baselessly attacking renewable energy proponents, painting us as elitists who can’t see the real issue from our “well-lit and air-conditioned eyries in New York and London.”
“Despite these debilitating conditions, some in the developed world insist that Africa must focus on intermittent and expensive renewables like wind, essentially ignoring the plight of the current generation,” wrote Clemente, adding that “many Westerners criticized the World Bank’s $3.8 billion loan to help build a coal power plant in South Africa, even though the Medupi plant would help stabilize the electricity grid in poverty-stricken surrounding countries as well.”
In so painting us as liberal elitists, Clemente shows clearly coal’s only real argument — and it’s a poor one at that. Not only are renewables a cheaper, more efficient energy option than coal — an energy technology that would require phenomenal resources to get off the ground, compared to relatively simple solar and wind technologies — but they help “the current generation” as well as future generations. Mr Clemente seems to subconsciously realise the flaw in his argument when he writes that we are somehow ignoring the “plight of the current generation” of African citizens — how well he must know what coal will do to future generations of African citizens.
Why Renewables, Then?
There are several fundamentally inescapable flaws in the “coal for Africa” argument that the Carbon Tracker Initiative highlights, and promptly solves by replacing coal with renewable energy.
One of the primary flaws in the argument for coal over renewables is found in the argument for coal: When proponents of coal dismiss renewable energy, they often highlight the apparent costs and technological barriers inherent in renewable technology (an argument that needs its own time and place to debunk). However, in making this argument, coal proponents dismiss their own point in the same breath.
The CTI report notes that 84% of those living without energy access throughout Africa and India live in rural and remote areas — areas without an existing energy grid. Without an energy grid, the energy generated by coal would have no way of reaching its intended recipients, requiring a massive outlay to build the necessary infrastructure to reach the very people renewables apparently “can’t.”
As can be seen in the graph above, provided by the International Energy Agency, the cost for coal to existing grid recipients is relatively low. However, the real costs come when grid extensions are required. Compare on-grid costs to mini- and off-grid costs for rural development of renewable energy, and there are still investment costs, but they are inherently cheaper and more effective.
Furthermore, as the CTI point out, “coal is not distributed well to serve Africa’s energy poor.” Only 7% of the people in sub-Saharan Africa who currently lack access to energy actually living in coal-rich countries. On top of that, the transport links necessary to remedy this problem — between north and south — are poor, and would once again require massive infrastructure costs to solve the problem.
Many fossil fuel proponents dismiss renewable energy technology discussions for developing countries as being prohibitively expensive. And, if it was a one-for-one translation between Western-renewable development and developing-renewable development, they might have a point. However, renewable energy developers throughout the developing world are providing innovative methods to provide access to energy for households inherently poorer than their Western cousins.
The CTI press release points out the micro-credit arrangements some solar energy developers have made with households, who can pay off their solar panel loans in very small amounts of money each week, instead of the more traditional large repayments.
“This shows how energy may echo telecoms where mobile networks have provided communications links without a wired telecom network and infrastructure being required – this is what we are seeing in the energy markets in the developing world,” said Anthony Hobley, CEO of Carbon Tracker.
In the end, the argument for coal over renewables is always going to come down to he-said/she-said. The predominant view in society is to listen to the loudest voice, and then move on with your day, assuming you now have all the facts. In time, renewable technology will be known to be the most commonsense option, but in the meantime, coal proponents will be yelling loudly to be heard over the overwhelming logic of renewable technology.
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