Powering the poor: Coal or solar?

There are more than 1.5 billion people suffering under energy poverty but it's decentralised solar, moreso than coal, which offers the best way forward for the world's lost villages.

During the past six months, there have been countless words written arguing the benefits of renewables over coal, or vice versa. As an engineer, I am always cautious to accept a premise from any individual that their approach is the “only” universally appropriate solution.

From experience, I have learnt  that the design of power systems, not just the generating source, is far from a trivial exercise. Understanding the context in which the power system is operating is a critical input into determining the most appropriate economic, technical and socially acceptable design.

For what it is worth, and to put my cards on the table, I am a great advocate for renewables in the right locations, but I still think that coal will have a role to play for at least the next decade or two.

Having said that, I have been struck by the number of recent claims by various commentators and officials noting that a key reason for supporting coal over renewables is coal’s ability to provide “cheap”, “reliable” and “efficient” forms of energy to developing countries to help lift millions out of poverty.

The claim of being able to lift millions out of poverty is a tantalising proposition. This proposition is designed to suggest that to consider not using coal in favour of renewables is to deny these poor people access to power – a demonstration of the moral arrogance of the well-off “latte set”. It is an argument that thus far seems to have struck a chord with the public.

Unfortunately, for the proponents of this argument, reality is not necessarily on their side.

There are indeed over 1.5 billion people in the world who currently suffer from energy poverty (a definition which is still being contested). In a country such as India, there are approximately 400 million people without access to reliable electricity, equating to over 100,000 villages.

There have been vast electricity network expansion programs throughout sections of India, resulting in aid agencies, development banks and state and national governments being able to claim that electricity is now delivered to many more millions of people. However, there is an increasingly common trend for network extension without generation expansion, resulting in people getting access to highly unreliable power supplies that incentivise energy theft and cause very peaky demand. The large scale blackouts across Delhi during 2012 were testament to this.

An increasing trend is for people to elect to disconnect from the grid, thus avoiding the expenditure on monthly access payments, and developing their own power systems. Indeed, during the blackout 600 million people in 22 states lost power, however some villages and large consumers with their own stand-alone power supplies were not affected – including Meerwada in Madhya Pradesh, which had a 14kW solar power station, and the five largest consumers in India, who all had their own islanded power supplies.

There is good precedence for this too: a fascinating characteristic of many developing nations is the rapid uptake of mobile phones, completely bypassing traditional fixed telephony. An entire generation of technical infrastructure has been bypassed.

One of the reasons for this is that the development of fixed national grids is very expensive, and actually quite inefficient, particularly when delivering energy to people in remote areas, which is where a lot of the people suffering energy poverty live. For that reason, local and small regional mini-grids are increasingly seen as the most viable way of delivering reliable energy to communities. In these circumstances coal is not the solution as the scale is just too small. Micro hydro, solar PV and hybrid power systems are increasingly the norm. They are still expensive, but have the advantage that they draw on another affordable and reliable energy resources ... the sun and streams.

There are challenges, of course, and the problems will not disappear overnight, but it is critical to understand that the structural barriers to provision of energy to people in remote areas, be they Aboriginal communities in northern Australia, Pacific Islands, remote Indian villages, or factories in the Kenyan highlands, are not simply able to be resolved by the provision of cheap coal. Indeed, the most valuable export Australians could share with these communities is our extensive experience and knowhow in designing and developing remote power systems, particularly solar hybrid power systems.

As I said at the beginning, I think coal has a role in our energy mix but it is not universally appropriate. Large centralised generation can be considered an appropriate solution in higher density areas, but for millions of people in remote areas decentralised solar technology may indeed be cheaper, and more reliable, than coal.

Lyndon Frearson is general manager of CAT Projects, a company which specialises in remote area project management, energy and power system engineering.

The company has been assisting a network of Indian community organisations and RE industry participants, as well as the Government of India, to establish a widely replicable model for the electrification of remote villages using centralised solar PV energy systems.  

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