The Tragic Cost of Energy Poverty

The Tragic Cost of Energy Poverty
AP Photo/A.M. Ahad
The Tragic Cost of Energy Poverty
AP Photo/A.M. Ahad
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As rescue workers searched for survivors of Guatemala’s deadly volcanic eruption earlier this month, every evening the search shut down because the hardest-hit areas have no electricity service. Vital hours were lost to the darkness.  It was a stark reminder of the role reliable power plays in our lives.  In the U.S. we generally take abundant, reliable and affordable energy for granted, but for much of the world the situation is vastly different. 

Today, over 1 billion people worldwide have no electricity.  Almost 40 percent of humanity – nearly 3 billion people – still use biomass, animal dung or other fuels that are dangerous for indoor cooking and heating, no different than was done hundreds of years ago.  

Living in energy poverty is not simply an inconvenience; it’s a social and economic tragedy.  According to a report by the World Bank, the lack of modern, efficient cooking fuels is “one of the world’s major public health challenges, causing more premature deaths than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.” According to the World Health Organization, more than 4 million people die each year from the effects of indoor air pollution, half of them children under the age of 5. 

Every global citizen deserves access to safe, reliable, affordable energy and the human progress it enables. Energy opens the door to education, to sanitation and health care, and to the first steps on an economic pathway to better support families. Helping countries defeat energy poverty strengthens effective governments, spurs economic growth that creates openings for trade, and makes environmental improvement possible.  

But frankly, the progress the global community is making to eliminate energy poverty is far too slow for far too many. 

Some say the developing world would be better off if countries just waited a little longer – if they abstained from fuels like natural gas until wind or solar become scalable.  But given the realities and the economics, the wait is too long and the cost is too high.  Millions of people do not deserve a lifetime of poverty. 

Ironically enough, at a time of unprecedented energy abundance, the debate over energy’s role in the world has become more polarized than ever.  This is a recipe for inaction.  It hinders compromise, slowing the transition toward cleaner energy.  It keeps billions of people around the world trapped in energy poverty.  

If we’re going to address this crisis, we need a new, more balanced conversation about the future of energy.  This kind of discussion rests on four principles:  

First, an understanding that energy transitions happen at different speeds in different parts of the world.  We shouldn’t expect universal solutions to unique challenges.  What’s happening today in Berkeley or Barcelona isn’t necessarily the answer for Beijing, Bangalore or Bangladesh.  

Second, the recognition that global energy needs are complex and diverse. Providing cleaner, reliable, and affordable energy to nearly 3 billion people requires massive investment and innovation – and a policy environment that encourages it.  

Third, an agreement that cleaner solutions are required – but they must also be reliable and affordable. Natural gas is a key part of that equation.     

Fourth, the realization that meeting the world’s energy needs will require a diverse mix of energy sources – what some have called an “all of the above” strategy.  This means embracing many different forms of energy, and always looking for opportunities to scale cleaner energy faster. 

These principles can guide us toward a more rational conversation about energy. And they can help us unlock the benefits that flow from the availability of reliable, affordable, cleaner energy to eliminate energy poverty and improve lives around the world. 

Michael Wirth is chairman and CEO of Chevron.

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