Forbes
May 22, 2020

Looking back, it appears my old refrigerator was an energy hog. It used more electricity than Whirlpool claimed it would. The specification sheet claimed the machine would use about 616 kilowatt-hours per year. But when I plugged it into my wattmeter, I learned that the machine, which I bought about 15 years ago, was using about 949 kilowatt-hours per year.

A few weeks ago, I started worrying that the Whirlpool was going to conk out during the Covid-19 lockdown. So I bought a new LG refrigerator from Costco, sight unseen. It has the same capacity as the old machine and the same features: two doors, and an exterior ice and water dispenser. The spec sheet said the LG will use 715 kilowatt-hours per year. But after plugging it into my wattmeter, I discovered it will use less: about 385 kilowatt-hours annually.

I’m spotlighting my refrigerator because it provides an easily understandable metric that illustrates the vast disparity in global electricity consumption. Understanding energy and power systems can be tricky. The same is true for understanding the scale of our energy use.

For those reasons, in my new book and documentary (which will be available on June 2), I used the old refrigerator’s consumption as a metric. Here’s what I found: Today, about 3.3 billion people are living in places where per-capita electricity use is less than what my old Whirlpool consumed. Thus, roughly 4 out of every 10 people on the planet live in what I call the Unplugged world.

My new LG uses less than half as much electricity as the old Whirlpool. But it still provides a useful yardstick. Today, about 1.2 billion people live in places where per-capita electricity use is less than 400 kilowatt-hours per year. In Sub-Saharan Africa, average consumption is 486 kilowatt-hours per capita per year. In Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, the average is just 145 kilowatt-hours per capita per year.

 

 

The enormous gap in electricity use matters because it is directly related to some of the world’s most vexing problems including women’s rights, inequality, and climate change. Educate the mother and you educate the child. But mothers can’t get much education if they are constantly hauling water, fetching firewood, and washing clothes by hand.

Hans Rosling, the late Swedish academic and statistician, estimated that about 5 billion people on the planet are walking around today wearing clothes that have been washed by hand. That means that roughly 2.5 billion women and girls – as part of their daily, or weekly routine – are washing those clothes. By hand. In buckets. Or washtubs. And every hour that women and girls spend at the washtub is one missed in the classroom, bookstore, or library.

Numerous academic studies have shown the positive effect electrification has on women and girls. A 2002 study in Bangladesh found that the literacy rate for females in villages with electricity was 31 percent higher than it was in villages that lacked electricity. It concluded that electricity has a “significant influence on education…This influence is much more pronounced among the poor and girls in the electrified households than the poor and girls in non-electrified households.”

There are many ways to think about inequality. But as Todd Moss, the founder of the Energy for Growth Hub, has put it, there is “no such thing as a low-energy, high-income country.” (In 2013, Moss did his own refrigerator measurement which he used to size up six countries that were part of the Power Africa initiative. His cold box used 459 kilowatt-hours per year.)

No matter where you go on this planet, from India to Iceland, electricity consumption and wealth go hand in hand. Electricity use turbocharges economic growth and growth amps up electricity use. In 2010, William Nordhaus, an economist at Yale University, who has since won the Nobel Prize in Economics, published a study with Xi Chen which showed that nighttime luminosity – that is, the amount of light emitted by a region at night, which can be measured by satellites – is closely correlated with personal incomes.

Or consider the inequality in the availability of air conditioning. In 2018, only about 5 percent of India’s households had air conditioning. In the US, that figure was 87 percent. Over the coming decades, hundreds of millions of people in India and other countries are going to be buying air conditioners and other appliances that need electricity. The International Energy Agency estimates there will be “10 new air conditioners sold every second for the next 30 years.” By 2050, the IEA estimates global electricity demand – solely for air conditioning – will be roughly equal to the amount of electricity now used by China.

Finally, electricity use matters to climate change. Electricity production accounts for the biggest single share of global carbon-dioxide emissions: about 25 percent. A key reason why electricity-related emissions are so high is that coal’s share of the global electricity mix has stayed remarkably stable over the past three decades at about 38 percent. Coal’s persistence is due to several factors, including its low cost, abundance, and reliability of supply. That’s why Japan, the home of the Kyoto Protocol, is building more coal-fired power plants and why Germany will open a new 1,100-megawatt coal-fired power plant (Datteln 4) this summer.

The point here is that regardless of what you think about climate change, we are going to need a lot more electricity in the future to stay safe and comfortable. Indeed, over the next two or three decades, global electricity consumption is expected to double.

The humanist response to this reality should be to welcome the increase in prosperity and human development that will come with increased electricity use. Alas, some of the world’s biggest environmental groups – including the Sierra Club – are trying to block the World Bank from lending money on any projects that use hydrocarbons. Furthermore, numerous climate activists, including America’s most famous environmentalist, Bill McKibben, routinely claim that the world economy can be run solely with renewable energy.

The truth is that numerous studies, including a 2017 analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, have found that renewables cannot, will not, be able to supply the gargantuan quantities of juice the world demands at prices consumers can afford.

It’s time to move past shopworn claims about the all-renewable economy and accept the reality that the world needs more energy – and particularly, more electricity — not less. Sure, renewables will grow in the years ahead. But oil, and natural gas, and yes, coal, are going to stay in the energy mix for decades to come.

If the countries of the world are serious about reducing carbon-dioxide emissions while increasing electricity supplies, the best no-regrets strategy is N2N: natural gas to nuclear. Those two sources of energy are scalable, low-carbon, and if properly deployed, they are affordable. They will have minimal negative impacts on the economy and environment while providing significant decarbonization and more electricity.

Electricity is the world’s most important and fastest-growing form of energy. If we are going to bring the billions of people now living in poverty out of the dark and into modernity, they are going to need more electricity. And if they have enough electricity, the refrigerators will follow.

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