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How do we solve energy poverty?

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Each year, human civilization consumes some 14 terawatts of power, mostly provided by burning the fossilized sunshine known as coal, oil and natural gas. That’s 2,000 watts for every man, woman and child on the planet. Of course, power isn’t exactly distributed that way. In fact, roughly two billion people lack reliable access to modern energy—whether fossil fuels or electricity—and largely rely on burning charcoal, dung or wood for light, heat and cooking.

"Three tablespoons of crude oil provide as much free energy as expended by an adult male laborer in a day’s labor," noted political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of Waterloo, during a talk at the Equinox Summit in early June.

Bringing modern energy to the poorest and enabling the continued use of copious energy in the developed world without the attendant greenhouse gas emissions are the main reasons many experts think we will need roughly 30 terrawatts of energy by mid-century. And just as cellphones have leapfrogged their way into becoming the communication tool of choice throughout the world, the hope is that solar-battery systems or renewable- or nuclear-based microgrids might displace the need for more coal burning at centralized power plants to give light to the masses. After all, Edison’s first coal plant served a microgrid of sorts in lower Manhattan back in 1882, exclusively for lighting.

The killer app of modern energy—whether kerosene or electricity—is lighting, in fact, as that’s the first thing people use it for: either allowing their children to learn to read or extending their working hours for extra income. And then there’s charging for all those leapfrogging cellphones out there.

Lighting and battery charging are closely followed by another application—television. For example, the Chinese government is in the midst of a rural improvement scheme that essentially promises three goods: a road, an electricity line and television.

But the greenhouse gases that are raising global average temperatures are in the atmosphere as a result of two passions in the developed world: electronic devices and cars. In the U.S., for example, household emissions tripled between 1950 and 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, thanks to the use of electricity in the home for devices like TVs.

Extending that lifestyle to the rest of the world means more environmental impact. China, for example, has lifted millions of people out of poverty and into the middle class, according to the U.N. Development Program, largely by burning coal—and that’s also made them the nation with the largest total amount of greenhouse gas emissions. And even if more environmentally-friendly technologies are used to extend modern energy’s reach, there will be more environmental impact: more mining and energy use for rare-earth elements for electric motors; more pollution from the process of purifying silicon, incorporating thin films of toxic elements or fossil fuel-based polymers for photovoltaics; more lead, nickel or lithium for batteries. "A cellphone’s embodied energy is one-quarter of a car," said environmental scientist Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba at the Equinox Summit, despite being 1/1,000th the size.

In fact, back when electric vehicles were resurrected in the 1990s, researchers found that battery-powered cars would introduce more lead into the environment than if they burned leaded gasoline. As it stands, recycling lead-acid batteries—still the standard for starting cars around the world—is one of the world’s worst environmental problems, according to the Blacksmith Institute.

Certainly, those of us in the developed world could get by with less—Americans consume twice as much energy as Europeans or Japanese without an appreciable difference in quality of life. "Assuming U.S. and Canada reduce per capita energy consumption to the level of Germany, that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1,200 million metric tons of oil equivalent per year," noted engineer Ding Jianhua of the China Urban Construction, Design and Research Institute in Beijing at the Equinox Summit. "That is nearly the total energy consumption of Latin America and Africa."

It is also clear that using less energy is not the answer for the world’s poorest. "In Uganda, less than 5 percent of the population has energy, it doesn’t make sense to talk about energy efficiency," says Juan Jose Daboub, former World Bank managing director and founding CEO of the Global Adaptation Institute, an organization devoted to adapting to the challenges of climate change.

In the starkest terms, energy, largely from fossil fuels, has freed humans and animals from labor by powering machines—it would take 100 human slaves to do the work of one gallon of gasoline. It is also about health: burning smoky fuels indoors shortens lives, and a lack of modern energy means a lack of electricity to power refrigerators to store life-saving vaccines.

Those applications of energy are definitely ones we want to extend to the developing world, certainly more so than sharing our love of gadgets and cars. The trick will be doing it in a way that preserves people and the planet.

Image: © Dominic Sansoni / World Bank

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  1. 1. JamesDavis 8:05 am 06/30/2011

    And why is America still dragging its heels 30 years later in getting away from fossil fuels? You would think that within 30 years, everyone would be driving a plastic electric car about the size of your 60" flat screen TV. Chrysler developed the two wheel electric car and google developed auto-pilot for it and it still is not in cities who create the most pollution. That two wheel car can get about 30 to 60 miles between changes, so why do all of us still need a 17 MPG SUV to go to work, school, or bar hopping?

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  2. 2. nic7320 8:36 am 06/30/2011

    A minor correction: Power is a rate of energy consumption, not a total energy use over a year. So it’s more correct to say, "On average, human civilization consumes some 14 terawatts of power" since at any second, the rate may be just as much.

    Over the span of a year, you could also calculate the total energy and say "Each year, human civilization consumes some 14*365.25*24*3600 terawatt-seconds of energy," but that’s a number too large to even contemplate.

    It’s a huge issue to replace our fossil fuels, given our insatiable appetite for energy, and it will require a huge investment and commitment that our governments are not presently doing. But if we want future generations to have a future, we need to do it.

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  3. 3. eddiequest 10:31 am 06/30/2011

    Two reasons:Good salesmen; and stupid, gullible customers.

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  4. 4. sethdayal 12:46 pm 06/30/2011

    The answer is simple really.

    A worldwide investment in 10000 mass produced nuclear reactors paid for by ending expensive fossil fuel use, would eliminate most air pollution saving millions of lives annually, end the global warming/ peak oil problem within a ten year time frame, provide a huge job producing boost to the economy, and require only a small part of our industrial capacity. The fossils fuel mainly petroleum is so expensive and the mass produced nuke so cheap that payback periods of three years or less are probable.

    As we convert to nukes, NG electricity and heating applications would immediately convert to nuclear electricity. The freed up gas would be available to make CNG, methanol, DME (propane), and synfuel transportation fuels as we transition to nuclear produced synfuels and electric vehicles.

    While current Gen III+ reactors and new SMR variations will work a new startup and China are now getting behind the Molten Salt Reactor.

    David LeBlanc at the U of Ottawa has redesigned the Molten salt reactor which would resolve all safety and cost issues with nuclear. This tech was actually build and ran in a reactor for many years – even flown around on an airplane. By using existing nuclear waste for fuel it could power the world for hundreds of years.

    All it needs is $5B, 5 years, and a place to build em , and factory produced units would be streaming out fast enough to eliminate fossil fuels in 5 years.

    Big Oil knows this and has purchased the politicians to make sure no development happens. Even Bill Gates can’t find a place to build to his derivative TerraPower unit.

    The Chinese and American Hero Kirk Sorensen at least have seen the light and are starting a MSR program.

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  5. 5. sault 4:29 pm 06/30/2011

    Nuclear power as it is currently will be counter-productive:

    I don’t think ANY commercial reactor construction is warranted until we get a research MSR or whatever up and running that can work out the kinks and provide valid cost metrics on construction, operations, decommissioning and waste disposal.

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  6. 6. rrdrake 5:06 pm 06/30/2011


    While I certainly agree with the conclusion that fossil energy provides us a form of "slave labor", your comment "–it would take 100 human slaves to do the work of one gallon of gasoline" is mixing units. 100 human implies a burn rate of that gasoline, not a total quantity of that gasoline.

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  7. 7. rrdrake 5:17 pm 06/30/2011

    We need a way to discern between alternative forms of alternative energy. I propose letting alternative energies compete on a net energy basis using only their own alternative energy for development. E.g., do solar photovoltaics have any net energy if I had to use the power from that panel to mine the rare earth elements and produce the steel that goes into the framing? How about the energy that goes into cleaning the panels, and recycling the old panels? I like the idea of solar photovoltaics, but I wonder if they even have positive net energy.

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  8. 8. Fyredawg 6:20 pm 06/30/2011

    This problem is exactly what we are trying to solve with new technology over at TogetherWeCanFixThis. Replacing all existing fossil fuel power generation with sustainable and renewable technology. Not talking about wind, solar, bio-mass or any of the other so called green energy techs. This technology can be used from a personal level all the way up to the continental level. Using this technology we can also replace the internal cumbustion engine and any other form of toxic motive force. Interested? Come over and see what we are doing to clean up our world and provide power where it is needed most.

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  9. 9. Dr. Strangelove 9:20 pm 06/30/2011

    Mr. Biello,

    Do your math correctly. "A cellphone’s embodied energy is one-quarter of a car." If this were true, the cheapest cellphone would cost at least one-quarter the cost of a car because all the energy consumed in manufacturing a product is included in its production cost. In reality, the cheapest cellphone is like 1/50 the cost of a cheap car.

    "it would take 100 human slaves to do the work of one gallon of gasoline" This is also false. A 20 MPG car will only carry 5 passengers to 20 miles and consume a gallon of gasoline. 100 human slaves can ride bicycles and travel more than 20 miles. Obviously a gallon of gasoline cannot transport 100 slaves over 20 miles.

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  10. 10. scientific earthling 12:50 am 07/1/2011

    nac7320: David probably meant terawatt hours. Which is the unit for power consumption. Where the estimate comes from he does not say. I don’t know if the number is even remotely close to actual energy consumed by Homo sapiens. We do consume energy by eating & drinking.

    Should we worry about it? No.
    Should we do anything to distribute energy worldwide on a per-capita basis, like the UN seems to be suggesting, currently for food? No.

    Our 7G population has turned the natural balance of our biosphere upside down and multicellular lifeforms are rapidly heading for extinction. Any attempt to salvage our existence is futile. Let things continue as they are, doing otherwise is denying a patient dying from lung cancer, the last few cigarettes that might give the patient some mental comfort, but do nothing to stop the cancer and imminent death.

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  11. 11. Dr. Strangelove 2:32 am 07/1/2011

    "it would take 100 human slaves to do the work of one gallon of gasoline"

    Wrong! Actually one man can beat one gallon of gasoline. The highest car mileage is 42 MPG on a 4-seater compact sedan. That’s 168 man-miles of work. An ultra cyclist can travel 400 miles on a single ride. That’s 400 man-miles of work.

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  12. 12. uzmasafiya 6:34 am 07/1/2011

    Great article David! Energy Poverty is an under researched and important area of international development. There is an non-profit organisation called Lifeline Energy that manufactures and distributes solar-powered and wind-up lights and radio/MP3 players (for access to information) to some of the most underprivileged in sub-Saharan Africa. The lights are used by hundreds of thousands of children to extend studying time and protect them from night-time terrors.

    You can read more about them here:

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  13. 13. Dr. Strangelove 8:02 am 07/1/2011

    "it would take 100 human slaves to do the work of one gallon of gasoline"

    Nonsense. Riding a 50cc motorcycle will take you 219 miles on a gallon of gasoline (93 km/liter). An ultra cyclist on a bicycle can go 500 miles on one ride. One human can do more work than two gallons of gasoline.

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  14. 14. nic7320 11:33 pm 07/2/2011

    If he meant terawatt-hours, the number would be 8766 times larger, i.e. the number of hours in a year.

    The 14 terawatt power consumption number is similar to the number posited by Wade Adams of Rice University. It includes the power equivalent of the 220 million barrels of oil consumed each day. Alternatives are few. To produce this amount of power, he stated it would require 10,000 Nuclear plants, and deplete the U235 reserves in only 10 years. Not a very good investment.

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  15. 15. scientific earthling 2:28 am 07/4/2011

    Nic7320: Your need to understand units of power consumption. A terawatt hour is the sum total of of all the watts per second or millisecond if you want added together, it is not the instantaneous rate of consumption.

    When you get your electric bill they charge you for Kilo watt hours consumed over the period, that does not mean you were consuming those units per second, hour, day or any time period other than the billing period which ends on the day your meter was read and begins with the date of the previous reading.

    If you want your annual consumption do not multiply the kilowatt-hours consumed in your billing period by 8766 No No No, not unless you own the power company. Divide the amount by the number of days you have been billed for and multiply by 365 for a non leap year. Still you wont have exact usage because of seasonal variation.

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  16. 16. CptSnark 4:32 pm 07/7/2011

    how much useful load can he carry that distance?

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  17. 17. CptSnark 4:36 pm 07/7/2011

    "Nonsense. Riding a 50cc motorcycle will take you 219 miles on a gallon of gasoline (93 km/liter). An ultra cyclist on a bicycle can go 500 miles on one ride. One human can do more work than two gallons of gasoline."

    Lets get a meaningful metric.
    So how many kilowatts can your super cyclist produce if his bicycle is hooked up to a generator vs what an high efficiency engine?

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  18. 18. alexander99 7:14 pm 07/9/2011

    trison industries has already filed for a patent that uses sodium sulfur batteries as a type of mini nuclear reactor ( but much safer and recyclable ) to use the heat generated by the battery to generate current to the tune of supersizing the battery itself by a facor of 20. game over. power for everyone, anywhere. smart grid? no need for a grid! scalable from cars, to ships to whole cities, six 9′s power for everyone, think about that! batteries are the 21st century holy grail and anybody that does’t want to realize that is wasting their time.Edison has lost the bet, d.c. power IS the answer. and it’s here! and yes, i am trison industries, and yes, i am in deep hiding.

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  19. 19. Dr. Strangelove 1:02 am 07/11/2011

    If the cyclist weigh 175 lbs, then the load is 175 lbs. The Honda Ape is a 50 cc motorcycle, can carry one rider (175 lbs) and produces 2.6 kW. A cyclist pedaling at 70 kph also produces 2.6 kW and can travel longer distance.

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  20. 20. GreenMind 1:21 pm 07/15/2011

    I doubt that the author’s citation of 100 slaves is anything more than a rhetorical point. And it doesn’t really make any sense, because a human being, assuming he is well fed, is both engine and fuel. It is like saying it takes 100 motorcycles (containing an undetermined amount of gas) to do the work of a gallon of gas. The motorcycle is the engine that uses the energy contained in the gas. A better comparison would be comparing gas to food. The human body is the engine that uses the energy contained in the food, like the motorcycle is the engine that uses the energy contained in the gas. And then the comparison would depend on the task itself. There is no number of slaves that would be able to push a motorcycle at 100 mph.

    Dr. Strangelove says: "If the cyclist weigh 175 lbs, then the load is 175 lbs. The Honda Ape is a 50 cc motorcycle, can carry one rider (175 lbs) and produces 2.6 kW. A cyclist pedaling at 70 kph also produces 2.6 kW and can travel longer distance."

    You need to include the weight of the motorcycle in the load. A gallon of gas can move a man plus a motorcycle a certain speed and distance. A man propelling a bicycle would be equivalent to that only if the bicycle weighs as much as the motorcycle, had the same tire friction, aerodynamics, etc. They also have to go about the same speed in order for the load due to air resistance to be the same.

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  21. 21. GreenMind 1:38 pm 07/15/2011

    "But the greenhouse gases that are raising global average temperatures are in the atmosphere as a result of two passions in the developed world: electronic devices and cars. In the U.S., for example, household emissions tripled between 1950 and 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, thanks to the use of electricity in the home for devices like TVs."

    I looked at that study, and it looks to me like they were measuring electricity use in general, and not specifically saying it was rising because of electronic devices. I suspect that the spread of air conditioning was far greater than electronic devices in the use of electricity at home. For one thing I have read in technical articles that power companies have to prepare for the great demand that rises at about 6 pm, when people arrive in their warm houses and turn on the AC. I’d also like to see how clothes driers compared with electronics. And then there are places where the heating itself is electric.

    In short, I’d like to see this figure analyzed in a lot more detail. Does anyone have any references where I could find this out?

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  22. 22. vendeirinho 6:34 am 10/25/2011

    Despite the to and fro banter of the incorrect use of metric units, equating slave labour to energy output of gasoline and whether it was TV or air-con that tripled our energy use, the article does carry merit. This seems to have been missed in the various commenters bid to prove themselves right.

    It points out two very important facts:
    1. In the developed world we simply use too much energy – instead of reducing, we are increasing our demand despite awareness around energy use and climate change being at a never before seen level.
    2. Energy poverty is THE fundamental cause of rural poverty. More people die each year as a result than in any past world war.

    Both of these are compounding problems that need more of us to be working on scaleable solutions.

    Inspired in part by Nicolas Carr’s summary of Edison’s launch of decentralised electricity in his book, The Big Switch (, at RVE.SOL ( we are deploying decentralised, renewable energy & water systems in rural Africa. To combat rural poverty in the form of water borne disease, deforestation and respiratory related deaths, we are offering communities the sustainable alternatives of solar electricity and biogas for cooking along with potable water. These are not aid projects – the consumers opt to pre-pay for service. It’s important to note that they make the choice. in every village we’ve been to we’ve found overwhelming favour in making that “switch”.

    Why then is it so difficult for the western world to make that same choice albeit at a different scale? Is it so inconvenient to reduce profits, too invest a little more today in order to secure a better world for our children’s children?

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