Coal doesn’t help the poor; it makes them poorer

George Frey

George Frey

The Guardian
October 31st, 2016
By: Dana Nuccitelli

A dozen international poverty and development organizations published a report last week on the impact of building new coal power plants in countries where a large percentage of the population lacks access to electricity. The report’s conclusions are strikingly counter-intuitive: on the whole, building coal power plants does little to help the poor, and often it can actually make them poorer.

Delivering electricity to those in energy poverty is certainly important. For example, household air pollution killed 4.3 million people globally in 2012; many of those lives could be saved and health improved with the use of electric stoves to replace burning wood or charcoal. However, the question remains whether coal is the best way to deliver that electricity.

More coal doesn’t help people living close to the grid

The report notes that approximately 15% of people in energy poverty live close to existing electric grids, but there are a variety of barriers blocking their connection. For example, the poor consume relatively little electricity, so the costs of connecting them may exceed the resulting profits. The power lines used to connect them also result in high energy losses and power system instability. The poor also have little political influence in many developing countries. As the report concludes:

This means that for energy-poor families living close to the grid, building new power generation capacity – coalfired or otherwise – will not help them get connected. Instead, access will require financing the upfront costs of new connections, and rationalising tariffs to reflect the true costs of supplying power.

More coal also doesn’t help people in rural areas

Approximately 84% of energy-poor households live in rural areas further away from the grid. For this group, decentralized stand-alone and mini-grid solutions are much quicker than waiting to build a new centralized power plant and distribution lines. A single power plant can take a decade between planning and ultimate completion, while distributed wind turbines or solar panels can be deployed much more rapidly, as Elon Musk explained in ‘Before the Flood.’

In fact, most planned coal development isn’t aimed at delivering electricity to the poor. It’s mostly targeted toward industrialized areas in China, which already have high levels of access to electricity. In India, many areas with the densest concentration of coal plants also have the lowest rates of electricity access.

New coal plants aren’t built for the poor because it’s not profitable.

China dramatically reduced poverty, but coal played only a small role

There’s a common misconception that China’s coal power expansion lifted much of its population out of poverty. For example, according to Bjorn Lomborg:

Over the last 30 years, China moved an estimated 680 million people out of poverty by giving them access to modern energy, mostly powered by coal.

However, as this new report notes, about two-thirds of China’s reduction in extreme poverty occurred in the 1980s, before its dramatic expansion of coal power starting in the 1990s.

More importantly, China enacted agricultural reform, which helped the profitability of small farms. China’s hard push towards industrialization did rely on coal power, but it only happened after the agricultural reforms had lifted most of its population out of extreme poverty.

Burning coal causes air, water, and carbon pollution

China’s air pollution problems are an example of the consequences of relying too heavily on burning coal for generating electricity. The report notes that sickness and death caused by air pollution currently costs China an estimated 9.7% to 13.2% of its GDP annually. It currently causes some 670,000 premature deaths a year in China and 100,000 in India. Coal also requires substantial amounts of freshwater for operation.

Read more at The Guardian.