The Other Face of Energy


The face of climate change just got a lot cuter. It also got a name. Nora the polar bear was introduced a couple of weeks ago at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Powell, Ohio and has been touching hearts ever since, particularly the hearts of global climate activists who see Nora as a way to draw attention to climate change.

Polar Bear CubPhoto Credit: Yahoo News

There’s little doubt that climate change is a front-burner issue in the U.S. and throughout the world. In fact, U.S. President Barack Obama and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (D-VT) have declared it the single greatest threat to our future, to future generations and to U.S. national security. On top of that, movie star Leonardo DiCaprio has decided that it’s time to stand up to the fossil fuel industry so, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he gave them a stern lecture: “We simply cannot afford to allow the corporate greed of the coal, oil and gas industries to determine the future of humanity. Those entities with a financial interest in preserving this destructive system have denied, and even covered up the evidence of our changing climate. Enough is enough. You know better. The world knows better. History will place the blame for this devastation squarely at their feet.” DiCaprio put his money where his mouth is and donated $15 million toward projects that focus on the Sumatran rain forest and land clearing associated with the palm oil industry that threatens orangutans and Sumatran tigers. He then accepted his 2016 Crystal Award for exemplary commitment to improving the state of the world and more than likely hopped aboard a jet-fueled airplane and flew back to his Malibu/Palms Springs/Wherever mansion to assume his daily carbon footprint that is probably equal in size to the annual carbon footprint of 1,000 rural citizens in India. Nora the polar bear, the President of the U.S., a U.S. senator and Leonardo DiCaprio represent a formidable marketing front that appeals to our natural tendencies to huddle around innocent polar bears, orangutans and tigers, while at the same time having our feelings validated by the highest office in the land and one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. However, the issue of energy isn’t that simple and, in fact, is so embedded in our lives we can hardly measure the extent to which we depend on it. But, for the moment, I’ll consider it as a two-sided coin with Nora on one side, and I’ll give the other side of the coin equal consideration—a side that also has faces yet, unlike Nora and Leonardo, the faces aren’t necessarily cute and they don’t shine with the glimmer of a blue-eyed Hollywood star. Rather, these faces are often gaunt, vacant and expressionless and will forever remain unnamed to most of us.


In the U.S., we can’t fathom a life lived in raw, direct competition against nature. Where, day after day we work with the rising of the sun, retire to our houses when the sun sets, and cook our meals with wood or animal dung, and whatever light we may be fortunate enough to have in the absence of sunlight is often a dim and dangerous open flame. Or, during winter, when we battle the elements of cold, dank nights with open fires fueled by wood that deplete local forests that environmentalists demand be protected. Or, during summers, when generally we either succumb to, or barely survive, the dry, blistering heat and diminished water supplies, and there is no natural defense that provides cooling other than a shade tree. We have experienced throughout history, and we can witness firsthand today, the reality that mankind, when pitted against nature without the defenses of engineering and technology, generally loses and survives only as would any other animal in the ecosystem. And at the core of our defenses against nature has been energy, with electricity being the highest quality form. With energy systems, we have been able to push back against the limits of nature with all our intellectual and technological capacity and, for the time being, are able to live beyond those limits with a quality of life that nature doesn’t directly provide. How long this can last, only God knows; but, we must persist with continued innovation as long as possible.

Woman Kitchen Energy Poverty
Photo Credit: Radio Canada International

The current industrialized global economy, with all the benefits it has afforded modern societies, is the product of fossil fuels, nuclear power, advanced engineering technologies, free market capitalism, inclusive economic institutions and stable socio-political structures connected throughout the world. This has not been without environmental externalities, but those externalities have been, and continue to be, addressed—the most current being climate change. However, not all of the world’s 7.3 billion people have benefited from these developments and one of the core non-social, non-political reasons for this exclusion is energy poverty. Current estimates indicate that 1.3 billion people (~18% of global population) live without access to electricity and another 2.6 billion depend on wood or some other form of biomass, including animal dung, for heating and cooking. Other than air to breathe, water to drink and food to eat, no natural resource issue locks people into abject, endless poverty more quickly and intractably than the absence of modern energy services; in particular, electricity. While energy poverty is bad enough for entire communities, its impacts are particularly acute on the day-to-day lives and health of women and young girls. It’s estimated that in India alone 92% of rural domestic energy needs are met by women gathering firewood, crop waste and cattle dung. As harsh as this may seem, the more disheartening aspect is the chronic marginalization that develops across generations of women and deprives young girls of the hopes and dreams of a better life. Admittedly, many of those who live in energy poverty are more susceptible under worst-case scenarios of climate change with respect to drought, food production, disease, sea level rise, etc. However, these same individuals have immediate needs that require immediate attention not the least of which is access to electricity.

Woman Girl Hauling Water
Photo Credit: World Bank
Mothers Hauling Wood
Photo Credit: allAfrica
Women Hauling Wood India
Photo Credit: David Gattie


While climate activists point to Nora as a victim of excessive fossil fuel consumption, the 1.3 billion people on the other side of the coin need more energy, not less. The challenge, however, revolves around how to deliver it to them efficiently and reliably with minimal climate impact and in a way that promotes the development of inclusive economic institutions and socio-political structures of self-governance. A standard proposal by many climate activists, with Nora as the face of their argument, is to shift industrial economies to renewable energy-only (e.g., solar, wind, water) and deploy these same renewable energy-only technologies in energy poverty regions, thus leaving fossil fuels in the ground and abandoning nuclear altogether. On paper, this would certainly zero out carbon emissions. However, moving from paper models to the grounds of pragmatism and reality, there is no precedent for such a sharp, step-function change in our industrial DNA and the unintended consequences can only be imagined. Germany has experienced some of those consequences as has rural India. And, while Germany has the economic and industrial heft to buffer some of these consequences, rural India doesn’t, thus it can’t afford to serve as an experimental guinea pig for a renewables-only belief system. In fact, the experiment in India is an example of a renewables-only strategy that created more problems than it solved. To his credit, DiCaprio himself has supported efforts to deliver solar-based microgrids to some of the communities that lack electricity. However, without advanced storage or fossil fuels and nuclear to prop up these systems, these communities are expected to do something that has never been done—develop modern economies from the ground up using only intermittent energy resources.

Standing in contrast to this renewables-only step-function change is a pragmatic proposal of transition that not only minimizes carbon intensities but also lifts up those living in energy poverty. While we continue working diligently to reduce carbon emissions in fully-industrialized countries, primarily through efficiency and increased penetration of renewables, nuclear, natural gas combined cycle power generation, and carbon capture and storage (CCS), we should couple these efforts to the alleviation of energy poverty in areas where energy poverty is prevalent (e.g., Sub-Saharan Africa) and in areas where economies are quickly developing yet energy access continues to be a broad, systemic problem (e.g., India). These areas represent vastly different energy and economic challenges and are not economically or technologically prepared for a renewables-only energy structure. Where renewable energy based systems may work sufficiently in remote areas to provide basic needs such as lighting, water pumping, and cooking on an intermittent basis, the inherent intermittency issues become problematic at larger scales where broad economic growth and development are the ultimate objectives, particularly for dense urban areas. It stands to reason, then, that as energy systems are designed and deployed in these regions, there will emerge challenges and unexpected issues associated with the management of intermittent resources and overall grid reliability—issues that must be identified, addressed and resolved. This problem-resolution process would be invaluable for refining low- and zero-carbon energy systems and extending these system designs to other areas, including more densely populated areas in developed countries. Technologically, we know how to design energy systems based on fossil fuels and nuclear power, particularly for dense urban areas. We have decades of experience doing that quite well. What we don’t know by experience is how to design and deploy renewable energy-only systems for industrialized societies. We also have no experience designing these systems for the current 1.3 billion people living in Sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia, 84% of whom live in remote rural areas without the economic and socio-political stability of a modern industrialized country. Therefore, we shouldn’t deny energy poverty regions the economic and social benefits that can come from fossil fuels and nuclear power, yet we also shouldn’t resort to past practices that ignore short- and long-term externalities. Rather, we should leverage this as an opportunity for developing a full portfolio of low- and zero-carbon power generation system technologies that includes nuclear, natural gas combined cycle, coal and natural gas CCS, solar, wind, and hydro. These represent the most realistic and promising options for meeting the dual constraints of reliability and economic feasibility.

For energy poverty areas, reliable access to electricity will have a multiplying effect as the darkness of night is overcome by lighting, children can read and study at any time of the day or night, personal safety is improved, and medical attention becomes a 24-hour service rather than one constrained by the availability of sunlight. The labor associated with the daily chore of hauling water and wood for cooking and cleaning can be alleviated and women and young girls can be freed from a life that once precluded them from any opportunity to attend school, learn, and ultimately break free from a cycle of servitude that began with the necessities of household chores and ended with the necessities of household chores. Countless hours of manual labor that were once spent doing basic necessary tasks can be reduced or eliminated, thus freeing up time for communities to develop inclusive economies, build schools and educational institutions, and establish inclusive democratic political structures where attention can be given to broader, perhaps even global concerns related to growth, development and environmental stewardship. However, without reliable energy systems that allow society to overcome the inherent limits of nature, these things cannot develop because all attention and all efforts are directed toward surviving the day at hand. We know how to overcome these limitations with fossil fuels and nuclear power. However, we have not yet overcome these limitations with renewables only. With that said, rather than approaching this as a step-function change from fossil/nuclear to renewables-only, a transitional approach is not only more pragmatic, it would also lend itself to a quicker, more realistic ramping up economically for the people in this world stricken by energy poverty.

Mother Daughter Studying Candle
Photo Credit: ONE
African Family Studying by Lamp
Photo Credit: CNN


I don’t doubt for one minute President Obama’s or Senator Sanders’ sincerity on climate issues. However, it is difficult for me to tolerate a lecture from Leonardo DiCaprio when he places all blame for climate change at the feet of the coal, oil and gas industry. It’s always comfortable to have a scapegoat on whom we can blame the faults of the multitudes. It may very well be in our nature to try and divorce ourselves from our own complicity so that we come away having convinced ourselves that it has to be the fault of someone else—anyone’s fault, but mine. As for DiCaprio’s claim that it’s industry’s fault and all blame will be squarely at their feet, my counter is this: No, the blame for any and all climate change impacts that may be related to energy will lay squarely at the feet of every single person who participated from producers to consumers, and that includes Leonardo DiCaprio and David Gattie. The ones who won’t be blamed will be those who lived in abject poverty because they lacked access to modern energy systems. DiCaprio is a classic case of the cake eater who had his fill of all the cakes, donuts and pastries he could ever need or want for himself, and then one day decided to spend the rest of his life shutting down bakeries.

Energy PovertyThe Other Side of the Energy Issue: Energy Poverty…With No Names

While current marketing strategies use the cute face of Nora the polar bear to inflict guilt for consuming fossil fuels, remember that there’s another side of this issue with different faces, but no names—these are the faces of energy poverty and its devastating effects. However, we don’t have to choose between Nora and these hundreds of millions of unnamed faces stricken by it. Rather, with a strategic, transitional approach that objectifies energy poverty alleviation with enhanced traditional energy system technologies and objectifies carbon reductions through renewables and low-carbon technologies, including nuclear and CCS, we can have both without having to choose one over the other. It certainly isn’t an easy proposition, and it will require economic and socio-political structuring, but it will be a godsend to these communities that are in such dire need of reliable electricity. For us, electricity is a necessity we take for granted. For them, it holds the promise to a life their children have never known and could never dream of…

The faces of energy poverty deserve at least the same attention and resources as does the face of climate change. In fact, they deserve more…much more.

~ david gattie


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