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stone crushers in India Credit: Getty Images
4 November 2016 17:16

‘Coal doesn’t benefit the poor’: Dan Kammen on energy access and poverty

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

04.11.2016 | 5:16pm
Interviews‘Coal doesn’t benefit the poor’: Dan Kammen on energy access and poverty

The role of coal in poverty reduction is contentious. The Overseas Development Institute’s recent Beyond Coal report argues that better options are available, namely, that coal has been given too much credit for past progress and that more coal will entrench poverty, not relieve it.

Carbon Brief spoke to Daniel Kammen, one of the contributors to the report, about the findings. Kammen is professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, and science envoy for the US State Department.

Kammen explained how the report came about and the clear message it discovered:

“There’s been a series of academic reports analysing, on a cost-benefit basis, how different coal projects around the world, from Kosovo, to Pakistan, to Mongolia, might or might not be cheaper, better, than the renewable energy alternatives. In each case that I’ve studied, the renewables came out better…
“The lessons of these different coal assessments…was a very, very resounding message that the coal projects were essentially always out of date, in terms of how much more or less they would cost. In almost every case we find the coal projects are just more expensive, flat out. And then you get to environmental impacts, you get to social impacts, and the fact that coal doesn’t even deliver the thing for which it’s really been touted for, and that is, bringing people out of poverty because somehow it’s this least-cost fossil fuel source.
“In fact, what we see is that…coal, if anything, has kept people in poverty, because big coal projects in poor countries tend to be projects that favour a few big industry customers. They don’t really actually affect and benefit the poor.”

Kammen pushed back against those that argue coal is the solution to extreme poverty in Africa:

“I really cringe a bit when I see people touting mega fossil fuel projects as the obvious, first thing to look at…Distributed clean energy, time and time again today, has proven to be better, cheaper, more socially and environmentally positive.
“I really feel that, unless it’s a totally unique case – and I don’t really know of any right now – the clean is beating the coal, except for some backwards looking analysts that are looking at what was the economics of renewables a decade ago. Today, it’s a different story.”

Kammen also explained why fossil fuel plants must respond to the Paris Agreement on climate change:

“At the point in the century we’re going to need to move beyond tried-and-true, because most of the countries of the world have made really quite significant pledges around the Paris climate agreement.
“Any fossil fuel plant built today is going to have to be under a totally different economic regime. Coal plants basically don’t pencil out at all. Gas plants that you build in 2016, 2017, the builder would have to be willing to retire it in just a couple of decades, to stay under the pledges that countries are making.”

You can watch the full interview, below.

Daniel Kammen is professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment, director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center, and serves on the Advisory Committee for Energy & Environment for the X-Prize Foundation. In February 2016 he was appointed as science envoy for the US State Department.

Sharelines from this story
  • 'Coal doesn't benefit the poor': Dan Kammen on energy access and poverty
  • john

    The really unfortunate aspect of this is that not many people actually look into the detail of cost to society.
    It is rather the same for instance to do with the energy efficiency of diesel powered vehicles.
    The fact that they have been able to give brilliant efficiency figures and totally awful pollution figures has escaped the public’s notice.
    The outcomes for new build power is showing that Renewable Energy both Solar and Wind beat any new build FF plant hands down.
    It is pretty simple implement a 3 part system with Solar Wind and pumped hydro to provide the required amount of energy required.
    If need be utilize CSP as well with storage usually salt or if available pumped hydro.
    Is this some new age not know technology?

    • tpolen61

      Regarding Diesel, the fuel economy is higher primarily because the fuel is slightly more energy dense, not because it is more efficient.

      3 years ago, I had a solar array installed. For a turnkey system, it was cheaper than buying coal-fired electricity without incentives over the 25-year warranty on the panels. The economics now are even better, with cheaper panels producing more power.

      People complain that solar is subsidized. It may be, but it’s the people buying the panels that get them, not the companies producing them (unlike fossil fuels). Even then, the only federal incentive is 30% of the system cost comes off of what the system owner owes in federal taxes. By the time the expiration date rolls around for that (2022), it will likely be no longer necessary or can be reduced to 15%.

  • Dénes Csala

    I totally agree with professor Kammen’s points. However, I have a recent article in The Conversation, where I highlight that there is not only a need to priotizite community-driven renewables but there is a an urge to scale up an order of magnitude:

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