The world has two energy problems

By Michael Smith (Veshengro)

The rich use too much of it, and the poor have too little.

Someone asked: "What's the higher moral imperative preferred? Poverty and reduced living standards commensurate with lower emissions or higher carbon emissions and all the benefits of a modern society?"

It is actually a valid and troubling point, made graphic in the above picture where carbon emissions are roughly proportional to income, and pretty much the only people living below the 2.5 tonne per year line are also seriously below the poverty line. This leads to the conclusion that we really have two energy problems, one of the rich, and another of the poor.

The lack of access to energy subjects people to a life in poverty. No electricity means no refrigeration of food; no washing machine or dishwasher; and no light at night. You might have seen the photos of children sitting under a street lamp at night to do their homework. The first energy problem of the world is the problem of energy poverty – those that do not have sufficient access to modern energy sources suffer poor living conditions as a result.

It's like the world lives in two bubbles, the pink one mostly in energy poverty, and the blue one where everyone is pretty much over the line, and the richer they are, the higher the emissions per capita. Also, as the people in the pink bubble make more money, they go blue.

The essential truth missing from economic education today is that energy is the stuff of the universe, that all matter is also a form of energy, and that the economic system is essentially a system for extracting, processing and transforming energy as resources into energy embodied in products and services.

Or, more succinctly, money is essentially embodied and operating energy and some experts believe that the solution is to find large-scale energy alternatives to fossil fuels that are affordable, safe and sustainable.

Without these technologies, they believe, we are trapped in a world where we have only bad alternatives: Low-income countries that fail to meet the needs of the current generation; high-income countries that compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs; and middle-income countries that fail on both counts.

Every country is still very far away from providing clean, safe, and affordable energy at a massive scale and unless we make rapid progress in developing these technologies we will remain stuck in the two unsustainable alternatives of today: energy poverty or greenhouse gas emissions.

It appear to be a very hard sell these days to believe and promote that there is a third alternative, a decoupling of energy from fossil fuels though increase use of renewables, and a decrease in demand through a culture of sufficiency, of using less. Maybe it is somehow fantasy-land, this believe, but the latter would start enabling the former. Without the latter the former is not possible, and that is where the problem lies.

Without a decrease in demand for energy and everything else, to be honest, it will simply not possible to move over to renewables and, as winter 2020/21 has shown, at least in Germany where the government advised people to stock up on candles, that, with the demand of energy with everyone being at home during the Covid19-pandemic and lockdowns, the renewables, upon which the German electricity network mostly, nowadays, replies just are unable to supply demand, with power cuts a result.

In addition to that we must find reliable ways of storing excess energy for use during the lean times. For off-grid homes this is more or less relatively easy by using battery storage, in many cases in the old-fashioned and well-tested lead acid batteries but on the large scale this is still a problem. Maybve it is also the large scale that is the problem.

© 2021