Al Gore: Poor People Don’t Need Coal

Michael Bastasch | Energy Editor

First it was “let them eat cake” about the needs of the poor, but now it’s “let them have solar panels.”

Former Vice President Al Gore has taken to the oped pages once again to criticize arguments that getting off of coal-fired electricity will harm the world’s poor because it is cheap. Gore says poor people don’t need coal power, they need solar panels.

“This exploitation of an urgent humanitarian need to promote more coal-burning in poor countries is extremely misleading,” Gore wrote in the UK Guardian. “If ever implemented, it would actually significantly worsen the condition of the 1.3 billion people mired in energy poverty.”

“Access to affordable and reliable energy is, of course, essential for sustainable development, poverty reduction, improved access to education and healthcare, and the promotion of public safety and stable government,” Gore continued. “But the relative merits of different energy options must be considered over the long term with an emphasis on three factors: financial cost, reliability, and impact on society and the environment.

“And when viewed through this lens, renewable energy – particularly solar photovoltaic energy, or PV – far outranks coal as the best future energy choice for developing nations,” Gore wrote.

Many developmental economists have argued that despite the global warming impacts of coal power, it’s a cheap, reliable source of electricity that can quickly lift people out of poverty. Take China, for example. Coal power has allowed 650 million people to be lifted out of poverty since 1990 all while increasing female literacy rates and reducing infant mortality.

Of note is that 4 million fewer people die every year from indoor air pollution from burning wood or dung inside their homes — which is the third world’s main substitute to coal power.

But that’s all irrelevant now, argued Gore, because coal’s contribution to global warming outweighs its benefits. Gore says that poor countries are being hit by “stronger storms, more destructive floods, deeper and longer droughts and disruptive switches in the seasonal timing of rain.”

“Other manifestations of the climate crisis are already retarding economic growth, harming subsistence agriculture and creating social unrest,” Gore writes. “Food security and water supplies are being compromised, natural resources stressed, and critical infrastructure crippled”.

Gore also said that it’s becoming very expensive for poor countries to expand their electrical grids to rural areas where most of the world’s energy poverty is happening. So what’s Gore’s solution? Let them have solar panels!

“[T]he astonishingly rapid decline in the cost of electricity from solar, plus the fact that it is quick to install, reliable, and that the technology for storing it is improving, make it an increasingly attractive option for rapid electrification in rural communities,” Gore said, not noting that solar panels produce no power at night time when rural communities could use it the most.

“The cost of the ‘fuel’ needed for PV electricity is zero – which provides economic security for impoverished families who would otherwise be at the mercy of historically volatile fluctuations in fossil-fuel prices,” Gore added. “Eliminating the burden of fuel costs also helps, over time, to offset the financial cost required to install renewables.”

But developing economies like China and India must not have read Gore’s oped as both are aggressively expanding their coal power use. Bloomberg analysts say that “India and its regional peers including Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea plan to increase their combined coal-fired generating capacity by more than 204 gigawatts, or 60%, through 2019.”

China did pledge to peak its carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 in a joint effort with President Barack Obama. But even under this promise, China will ramp up its coal power sector and will begin to drill for natural gas. China will limit coal use below 4.2 billion metric tons until 2020 and boost its use of natural gas and coalbed methane.

“The share of natural gas will be raised to above 10 percent and that of coal will be reduced to under 62 percent,” according to China’s State Council. “Production of both shale gas and coalbed methane could reach 30 billion cubic meters by 2020.”

“Annual coal consumption will be held below 4.2 billion tonnes until 2020, 16.3 percent more than the 3.6 billion tonnes burned last year,” the State Council reports.

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