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October 19, 2012

To close the energy poverty gap, we need ideas, investment…and natural gas. Todd Moss responds to Hannah Ryder

October 19, 2012

Why high carbon energy is the wrong solution for low income countries

October 19, 2012
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DFID staff break their duck as guest writers on FP2P with this post from Hannah Ryder (right), a regular blogger on the DFID site and Senior Ehannahryder.thumbnailconomist specialising in climate change and low carbon growth

Economists have a reputation for being sceptical – there is even a book called “the Skeptical Economist”. This has a lot to do with how it is taught. For instance, we are encouraged to be sceptical of the idea that one thing (a “variable”) might directly cause another variable to change. A number of development economists have recently been stressing that “complexity” should make us even more sceptical of these relationships.

Now, I usually avoid wearing the sceptic’s hat. But the other day I came across an article that assumed a linear, causal relationship between two variables. The article was by Todd Moss at the Center for Global Development. He was arguing that the American organisation that provides investment to developing countries “OPIC” should be able to help low-income countries invest in high-carbon energy – such as coal or diesel powered stations, to help stimulate access to energy in those countries. He argued that the limits that OPIC has on this kind of investment are “strategically counterproductive and morally dubious”.

I, like Todd, certainly feel strongly about access to energy. Around the world, 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity. Over 80% of those people live either in sub-Saharan Africa or in South Asia. Access can vary dramatically within regions – over 95% of people lack electricity access in Chad and Liberia versus 25% in South Africa. Although problems are currently worse in rural areas than urban areas, even so about 56% of urban dwellers in Sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity.

Han’s Rosling’s latest TED talk cleverly explains why increasing energy access helps reduce poverty. It can expand people’s choices and productivity, particularly for women. It also helps business. A recent survey of manufacturing firms in Nigeria showed that 83% of respondents identified electricity as their top problem. In many cases, even when people or firms get access to electricity they still suffer from blackouts (such as experienced recently in India) and lack of affordability. Related problems exist in developed countries. In the UK, around 19% of households were “fuel poor” in 2010 – meaning they had to spend over than 10% of their income on fuel for adequate heating. Energy poverty matters.

The problem is that, from a quick skim of historic data, there is no good reason to expect that investment in conventional high-carbon energy will solve the energy access problem. These two graphs from the 2003 and 2002 IEA World Economic Outlooks (respectively) illustrate:

hannah ryder graphic

Although the dollars invested in the power sector and installed capacity – most of it based on conventional fuels such as coal, gas and oil – have increased strongly since the 1970s, the number of people with access to electricity has increased somewhat, but not a great deal.

Of course, the problem couldsimply be population growth outpacing investment growth, but the data suggests it isn’t. A 2011 study by a set of global energy experts foundno distinguishable relationship between investment in energy infrastructure and the degree of energy poverty once you control for total population. These expertsinsteadsuggestedthe problem was inequality.  Effectively, in many countries, new energy investment tends to benefit people that already have access. They therefore recommended a five-fold increase in overall energy sector investment in low-income countries, particularly in grid extensions, off-grid solutions and renewable energy – rather than the conventional, high-carbon methods used to date.

Added to this, looking forward, reports such as the European Report on Development and McKinsey’s Resource Revolution provide evidence that commodity prices are likely to rise and become more volatile in future. A number of economists such as Shalizi and Lecocq think some developing countries might regret building infrastructure now that locks them into needing to buycoal or oilor relying excessively on their volatile revenues. While there isn’t much evidence on this yet, it’s probably sensible for most countries to begin to plan for a diversified energy sector, especially if they are also going to try to target poor energy consumers more strongly in future.

These are the reasons why I was sceptical when I read Todd Moss’s article calling for OPIC to invest in high-carbon energy. It’s also why the UK supports the UN Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy For All Initiative, and why DFID specifically helps low-income countries invest in diverse sources of energy, particularly through vehicles such as the Scaling Up Renewable Energy Program, the Results-based Financing Facility and Green Africa Power. Pushing OPIC and others to look in new directions and help forge a new relationship between investment and energy access might actually be a good thing. And with that, I shall remove off my sceptic’s hat.

Todd Moss responds tomorrow


  1. Fake demand and Supply made this hell. Total economy is based on deprisation. It’s to let those 1.3 billion people without fossil fuel based economy which dapreshates let them live in moon light and sunlight

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