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Study finds shifts to renewable energy can drive up energy poverty

Efforts to shift away from fossil fuels and replace oil and coal with renewable energy sources can help reduce carbon emissions but do so at the expense of increased inequality, according to a new study by researchers at Portland State University (PSU) and Vanderbilt University.

Julius McGee, assistant professor of sociology in PSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and his co-author, Patrick Greiner, an assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, found in a study of 175 nations from 1990 to 2014 that renewable energy consumption reduces carbon emissions more effectively when it occurs in a context of increasing inequality. Conversely, it reduces emissions to a lesser degree when occurring in a context of decreasing inequality.

Their findings, published recently in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, support previous claims by researchers who argue that renewable energy consumption may be indirectly driving energy poverty. Energy poverty is when a household has no or inadequate access to energy services such as heating, cooling, lighting, and use of appliances due to a combination of factors: low income, increasing utility rates, and inefficient buildings and appliances.

McGee said that in nations such as the United States where fossil fuel energy is substituted for renewable energy as a way to reduce carbon emissions, it comes at the cost of increased inequality because the shift to renewable energy is done through incentives such as tax subsidies.

This reduces energy costs for homeowners who can afford to install solar panels or energy-efficient appliances, but it also serves to drive up the prices of fossil fuel energy as utility companies seek to recapture losses. That means increased utility bills for the rest of the customers, and for many low-income families, increased financial pressure, which creates energy poverty.

People who are just making ends meet and can barely afford their energy bills will make a choice between food and their energy. We don’t think of energy as a human right when it actually is. The things that consume the most energy in your household—heating, cooling, refrigeration—are the things you absolutely need.

—Julius McGee

Alternatively, in poorer nations, renewable sources of electricity have been used to alleviate energy poverty. In rural areas in southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, a solar farm can give an agrarian community access to electricity that historically never had access to energy, McGee said.

That’s not having any impact on carbon dioxide emissions because those rural communities never used fossil fuels in the first place.

—Julius McGee

The study recommends that policymakers consider implementing policy tools that are aimed at both reducing inequality and reducing emissions. McGee and Greiner said such policies would both incentivize the implementation of renewable energy resources, while also protecting the populations that are most vulnerable to energy poverty.

We really need to think more holistically about how we address renewable energy. We need to be focusing on addressing concerns around housing and energy poverty before we actually think about addressing climate change within the confines of a consumer sovereignty model.

—Julius McGee

Resources

  • Julius Alexander McGee, Patrick Trent Greiner (2019) “Renewable energy injustice: The socio-environmental implications of renewable energy consumption,” Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 56, 101214 doi: 10.1016/j.erss.2019.05.024

Comments

HarveyD

Cleaner 27/7 REs do not have to cost more than unclean CPPs, NGPPs and extremely costly NPPs. We have a surplus of clean very low cost 24/7 REs (Hydro/Wind). Q-H has the lowest universal energy rate in Canada and is making a huge $3+B/year profit. Light/low users pay even less.

Arnold

Which is why a carbon tax with the proceeds redistributed to low income households for either subsidiesd grid or renewables installed will work without unfairly penalising low income earners.
Either which way the less well off will struggle especially as climate changes disproportionately affect the poor 's living standard.

Nick Lyons

The world needs *cheap* green energy. Cheap energy is the foundation of prosperity in the modern world. There is no reason (besides entrenched interests) that affordable, safe, clean, nuclear SMRs could not be powering our world.

HarveyD

Better wealth distribution still is a major worldwide problem to be solved. It proved impossible with polluting fossil and bio fuels. Could it be improved with clean e-energy? The answer is yes if we collectively want to do it.

The universal low price of Hydro/Wind clean electricity (in our region) is increased with higher consumption, to favour people living in smaller residences with lower consumption. Secondly, the price increase will be limited to the cost of living for the next 5 years. A major part of the yearly NET profit (from Q-H) is used to build schools (including new schools for 4-years old), hospitals and residences for older people care at lower price.

However, the GAFA group of huge very rich firms have managed to remain tax-free with the help of the USA administration. How much longer can this situation last?

mahonj

The problem with renewable energy (Solar and wind) is that it is intermittent, while fossil based generation is "on demand", or dispatchable, as it is known.
Thus, you need to keep dispatchable cover for the renewables.
This could be gas or coal or transmission or batteries or hydro.
All of the non fossil alternatives are capital intensive. Batteries are good for load shaping, but not long term power - maybe overnight if you have a lot of solar.
If you limit renewables to 60-70% and go solar, wind, gas + batteries, it will probably work. You can go deeper if you have a lot of hydro, else, you are in for very expensive electricity.
Nuclear could work, but currently is very expensive, and has a great fear factor in the west. People have done cheap nuclear, and they have done safe nuclear, but they have not done safe, cheap nuclear.

yoatmon

Nuclear fusion is inherently safe which nuclear fission is not. Availability of nuclear fuel is not unlimited. In the past it was believed that oil would last forever; we now know (emissions not considered) that it was nothing more than a fairy tale and a bad one at that.
Abe Lincoln coined the following fitting phrase, "you can fool some of the people all the time, you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time".

Roger Pham

@mahonj,
>>>>>>>"The problem with renewable energy (Solar and wind) is that it is intermittent, while fossil based generation is "on demand", or dispatchable..."

If we will have an overwhelming Solar and wind capacity that is over 4 times peak grid demand, with adequate long-distance power transmission capacity, then even with weak Solar and wind output, the grid can still be satisfied. We will thus have dispatchable DEMAND to replace dispatchable power generation.

The USA has 1,000 GW of total grid generational capacity and consumes 4,000 TWh of electricity annually = <50% capacity factor, given that 1 yr = 8700 hrs. With solar at 22% and wind at 33% and equal mix, we would need about 1,600 GW. However, since grid electricity is only 1/4 of all energy consumed, we would need around 4,000 GW of Solar and wind combined to satisfy all energy demand, taking into account electrification of transportation and heat pump and combined heat and power to increase efficiency. At the current rate of 20 GW of new RE capacity yearly, it would take 200 years and around $6 Trillion USD in cost, because much less grid utility storage needed when we have so much excess Solar and Wind capacity available for the grid.

However, if we would convert fossil fuels to Hydrogen while sequestering the CO2 right away and right down the oil and gas wells, and pump the H2 to the end users, we could stop CO2 emission into the air in much shorter time frame, while still building Solar and Wind at a faster rate, because the grid-excess S&W will be used to make H2, thus avoiding wasteful curtailment and bring back more money for S&W investors.

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