|Solar panels on Sumba Island in Eastern Indonesia. Photo credit: Asian Development Bank via Flickr.
By Anders Lorenzen
Something strange is going on. Why has a champion of eradicating poverty decided to champion the fossil fuel industry, which has done nothing to end poverty?
I was somehow surprised when I learned that Microsoft founder Bill Gates had joined the Bjorn Lomborg fan club and stated that the developing world need fossil fuels to develop and that we’re putting constraints on their development in telling them that they can only develop with clean energy.
This is far from reality, as I will lay out below. Apart from the issue of climate change, clean energy represents the most rapid and democratic way for developing countries to ease energy poverty.
First of all, I am not aware of such demands that Mr. Gates is describing: none of the countries that are classified as developing are legally bound to a certain amount of clean energy generation. In fact, the clean energy revolution currently underway in China (who are still classified as a developing country) is occurring due to market forces and Chinese worries about dangerous air pollution in its major cities.
Though I do not think that when Mr Gates mentions energy poverty, he is referring to China. I must assume, and one can only assume when he provides as little detail as he has done on his blog, that he refers to countries locked in poverty and in some cases extreme poverty. Maybe I’m blind but I do not see those countries being blocked in development by having clean energy demands imposed on them by the rich western world, but do tell me if I’m mistaken.
Earlier this year I wrote about Senegal, a country plagued by power blackouts who wants coal to be their main energy source despite the fact that the one thing that could lift them out of energy poverty would be decentralised solar energy. I do not see any western powers imposing themselves on Senegal and demanding they use clean energy. I don’t see that happening in Nigeria, Congo, and Angola either for instance. I could go on listing developing countries of which the western world have heavily invested in their fossil fuel infrastructure.
There is one simple reason why investments in fossil fuels are bad for developments as whole, access to electricity and easing energy poverty. 1.3 Billion of the world’s population lack access to electricity. Why? Because a lack of energy infrastructure means that they’re not grid connected, which means that the electricity generated by large centralised power plants cannot get to them. You could of course argue, well let’s then build the energy infrastructure that will create power lines and give them electricity. But who will build those, who will pay for them and when it hasn’t happened so far, why should it happen now? The reality is that corrupt leaders in many developing countries have no interest in spending money on such things to aid their own people. They are far more interested in for instance developing oil extraction, oil which will be shipped to western markets. The only impact localised urban areas will feel is localised pollution which will limit their ability to continue living of their land.
It does not matter how many coal powered power stations that are being built, it would still not help the world’s 1.3 billion people who do not have access to electricity.
Those people who do have some very basic electricity rely on generators powered by diesel fuel which is very costly and polluting and creates power outages. Those who does not have access to electricity rely on the lethal kerosene light for their lighting which is also highly costly and have lead to many diseases and in some instances people pay with their lives. Both energy sources are fossil fuels.
But a charity called SolarAid, which I have enthusiastically written about, have developed a solar lamp, that means people can give up their kerosene lamp, have light when the sun has set, without indoor pollution and at a much cheaper price. This has already had positive impacts as many students could stay up studying not feeling sick and that has positively been reflected in their grades. Earlier this year SolarAid passed the one million mark for sold solar lights.
The quickest, most democratic and cheapest way of easing energy poverty in the developing world is adopting a decentralised energy system. Solar lights have already shown to be the beginning and part of that solution. And some of the most advanced solar lights can also act as mobile phone chargers which is critical to the ongoing development. Many rural communities rely heavily on their mobile phones. But due to a lack of access to an electricity grid it is both costly and time consuming to charge them. In a small rural community with no electricity, one person would be responsible for collecting everyones mobile phones and then travel to the nearest town with electricity and charging them. Needless to say a lot of that time the people would be unconnected. Solar can change all that and make rural populations more connected to the rest of the world. Solar power can connect off grid communities to the rest of the world and thereby ease poverty and this could mean everything for their development.
It really is a no brainer, solar is game changer in the developing world – this is the springboard for easing poverty. Charities and government agencies would agree and so should Mr Gates.
Bill Gates has, through his organisation the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, performed amazing things to deal with poverty and health issues. But championing the fossil fuel industry as part of the solution is a strange move and it would not aid development issues. One can only ponder if Microsoft’s founder is motivated by vested interests.
Sub edited by Charlotte Paton
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