Energy Poverty and Coal “All Talk No Action” Australia Institute Report

Ahead of the G-20 meeting in Australia later this week, a new report by an Australian think-tank convincingly punctures coal industry claims that coal is an essential part of the solution to lack of access of electricity in the developing world.

Zeroing in on Peabody Energy’s “Advanced Energy for Life” global public relations campaign, which contends coal-fired power is a cheap, effective way to provide power to the large impoverished areas of India, Pakistan and elsewhere that now have none, the new study by the Australia Institute states that, “Peabody’s only contribution to energy poverty is maintaining a website and social media page which promotes coal as the solution to the problem.”

Examining Advanced Energy for Life’s claims one by one, the report concludes that while the issue is a serious one, “what Peabody says and what it does about energy poverty are very different.”

“Although the company contributes to many charitable causes, it does not donate money, staff time, expertise or discounted fuel to any project that directly alleviates energy poverty,” according to the study, entitled, “All Talk and No Action: The Coal Industry and Energy Poverty,” which was released last week.

The report contrasts Peabody’s behavior with that of other large coal companies – for instance, BHP Billiton, which supports solar projects in Pakistan, and the Indian coaler, Adani, which installed solar-powered street lighting in rural India.  Other companies have helped connect poor areas with hydroelectric or gas-fired power.

While serious, sustained, far-reaching electrification efforts exist – most notably the United Nations and World Bank ‘Sustainable Energy for All’ program, which is active in 85 countries – none promote coal use.  In fact, not even the coal companies own efforts at alleviating energy poverty employ coal:

“Despite extensive searches and contact with companies and mining lobby groups, we could not find a single example where coal companies have supported coal-powered energy poverty alleviation projects,” according to the study, largely because of the enormous up-front costs of building coal-fired power plants and extending the grid out to rural areas.  Meanwhile, the cost of generating electricity via renewables such as solar has plummeted to the point where it is competitive with coal.

Equally important, the report found no factual basis for the idea that coal is vital to continued global economic growth, or that it has been in recent times.  Since 1980, coal use has grown more slowly than the world economy, resulting in a gap of some $12 trillion between the two.  Between 1988 and 2002, in fact, coal use was flat while the global economy remained strong.  Most tellingly, recent reductions in the use of coal by developing countries haven’t retarded their growth.

And while life expectancy and economic growth can be correlated with coal use, it’s not coal that increases life expectancy, despite Peabody’s persistent claims, according to statistics examined by the Institute.  Both indoor and outdoor pollution caused by coal, not to mention the various impacts of climate change, negate that relationship.

Finally, the report reclarifies Advanced Energy for Life’s blurring of the lines between the many different kinds of unhealthy emissions produced by coal.  While AEfL likes to lump them all together and pretend that the real reductions by coal-fired power plants in sulfur dioxide, particulates and other pollutants have been matched by decreases in CO2, the Australia Institute’s findings reconfirm that when it comes to carbon, “clean coal” is still a pipe dream:

“To make serious reductions in coal-fired power greenhouse emissions, carbon capture and storage is required,” the report notes, going on to observe that so far, there are only  thirteen CCS projects operating worldwide, which all told are removing only 25 millions ton of carbon dioxide per year, “or less than one tenth of one per cent (0.07 per cent) of the world’s total 33,376 million tonnes of emissions each year.” 

Posted by Dan Zegart