Energy Transition Must Address Energy Poverty

Tinker calls for solutions from the 'radical middle'

While many see the energy transition as the switch from carbon-based to non-carbon-based fuels, Scott Tinker sees a broader definition.

Tinker, past AAPG president, director of the Bureau of Economic Geology and Texas state geologist, suggested the goal of a successful transition is lifting some 2.5 billion people out of poverty by addressing energy poverty, as well as by minimizing environmental impacts.

Renewable energy and other, “cleaner” sources, have environmental impacts, Tinker said.

Those impacts occur at all steps – from mining, to manufacturing, to collection, to disposal, Tinker said.

“It’s not the fuel that is the issue, but the environmental impacts,” he said.

A successful transition will require understanding and nonpartisan discussion. And solutions will differ from region to region around the globe, he said.

“The energy dialogue in the West centers around the ideas of ‘good and bad,’ ‘clean and dirty,’ and ‘believer and denier.’ But these are false dichotomies. No form of energy is inherently clean or dirty. They just have different impacts at scale,” said Tinker.

“Education is critical to making thoughtful decisions,” he added.

Coming Soon: ‘Switch On’

He has been involved in the making of two films, “Switch” and Switch On,” the latter due to be released later this year.

“Switch On,” is two years in the making and filmed in locales including Ethiopia, Vietnam, Nepal, Colombia and Kenya, focusing on areas both rural and urban lacking electricity and showing the challenges of lifting people out of energy poverty.

Image Caption

Gunchukwa, Colombia, where the Switch Energy Alliance brought first electricity in 2018. Photo credit Sterling Richard.

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While many see the energy transition as the switch from carbon-based to non-carbon-based fuels, Scott Tinker sees a broader definition.

Tinker, past AAPG president, director of the Bureau of Economic Geology and Texas state geologist, suggested the goal of a successful transition is lifting some 2.5 billion people out of poverty by addressing energy poverty, as well as by minimizing environmental impacts.

Renewable energy and other, “cleaner” sources, have environmental impacts, Tinker said.

Those impacts occur at all steps – from mining, to manufacturing, to collection, to disposal, Tinker said.

“It’s not the fuel that is the issue, but the environmental impacts,” he said.

A successful transition will require understanding and nonpartisan discussion. And solutions will differ from region to region around the globe, he said.

“The energy dialogue in the West centers around the ideas of ‘good and bad,’ ‘clean and dirty,’ and ‘believer and denier.’ But these are false dichotomies. No form of energy is inherently clean or dirty. They just have different impacts at scale,” said Tinker.

“Education is critical to making thoughtful decisions,” he added.

Coming Soon: ‘Switch On’

He has been involved in the making of two films, “Switch” and Switch On,” the latter due to be released later this year.

“Switch On,” is two years in the making and filmed in locales including Ethiopia, Vietnam, Nepal, Colombia and Kenya, focusing on areas both rural and urban lacking electricity and showing the challenges of lifting people out of energy poverty.

“Five billion people have access to energy; 2.5 billion still have little or no access, cooking and heating homes by burning wood, coal or dung,” Tinker said.

Bringing energy to people helps develop the economy and improves food, clothing and housing opportunities, he said.

Lighting homes helps improve education simply by allowing people to read in their homes. Other areas of improvement include medical care and refrigeration, he said. Immigration and migration are affected as people try to escape from energy poverty, Tinker said.

Further, empowerment of women is a major benefit. Energy poverty forces many women to be consumed by basic work to keep a home and family functioning; fetching water from a source often miles away, or cooking indoors with fuels that fill the home and lungs with particulates. Energy helps speed and simplify basic tasks, allowing women to have more time for other productive work, he said.

Tinker offered examples of countries working out their own solutions with some unexpected, and unintended, outcomes.

“Germany has been a green-thinking country for many years, moving to nuclear and natural gas and away from coal,” he said. “CO2 emissions were decreasing.”

About a decade ago, propaganda about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas – some unfounded – and post-Fukushima worries over nuclear power caused public concern. 

“They placed a moratorium on frac’ing, slowed nuclear development, and output from those sources flattened. Coal had to fill in, along with wind. The unintended consequences of these well-intended policies were that CO2 emissions stopped declining and have now flattened, and costs of electricity have gone up,” he explained.

Vietnam, with a population of 100 million, was historically a relatively poor country, getting most of its electricity from hydropower. In the past couple of decades, it began to grow the coal industry. Hydropower was limited, and coal was cheap, reliable and available, but not clean.

Vietnam’s energy policy calls for doubling its power production from coal. This will grow the economy, create jobs and, ideally, produce more money to invest in environmental cleanup.

Thanks to cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing, the United States is increasing its use of natural gas versus coal in power generation. Increased natural gas, coupled with growth of renewables and exporting manufacturing (a not so subtle “shell game” where developed countries essentially move their CO2 emissions to other countries) has U.S. emissions down more than in any other large, developed nation. This, in spite of limited federal carbon policy. 

U.S. electricity costs are about one-third of Germany’s, yet double that of Vietnam, Tinker said.

“The point is that there is not a single answer for the whole world,” Tinker said. “There may not be a silver bullet, but there may be a silver holster with many bullets in it. The right energy mix with thoughtful policies based on solid science and economics can produce results.”

One perhaps painful irony in this is that  “Climate change cannot be addressed with renewable energy. We simply can’t scale solar and wind fast enough to impact emissions at the scale and in the time frames that the climate models suggest is needed,” he said.

“And of course, renewable energy and batteries at scale come with environmental impacts of their own, including mining, manufacturing, deployment and landfill disposal,” he added.

‘Don’t Be Shy’

Tinker emphasized the need for educating the public to help reach reasonable solutions and promote helpful dialogue. 

He said petroleum scientists can be part of the conversation and solution. 

While other sources are important and growing, the global energy mix remains about 85-percent fossil fuels, he said.

Knowing the impact of making energy accessible to energy-impoverished people, “People in the energy industry should be willing to share and educate others about the industry, Tinker said.

It creates and sustains modern society. Don’t be shy, he advises. Let people know that you, “lift people out of poverty. But also be diligent about reducing the environmental impacts of oil and gas.”

Tinker said professional organizations have a duty to provide nonpartisan information to their members. 

“Get these materials to the professionals who can speak to schools, civic groups and such,” he said.

Tinker himself speaks to about 10,000 people each year in about 60 appearances.

He said listeners who sometimes hold differing views, upon hearing new, scientific, nonpartisan information may “feel frustrated, or even misled – but then, they want to get involved.”

He has formed a nonprofit organization, Switch Energy Alliance, to create film and web content targeting audiences in grades kindergarten through 12, higher education, and professionals. Also, more information is available at switchon.org.

“Energy leadership matters, and that is lacking somewhat is the partisan dialogue,” Tinker said. “It’s not a left or right problem.”

With climate change emerging as a top political issue, candidates’ proposals must focus on solutions that can actually impact climate change. These don’t always line up with the broader desires of the political base.”

Tinker said scalable solutions are there, such as nuclear, natural gas, carbon capture and sequestration, distributed renewables, and efficiency.

“Government, industry and academia must come together in the ‘radical middle,’” Tinker said. “I’m passionate about actual solutions, regardless of political appeal. It’s gratifying – I’m optimistic, it’s doable.”

Comments (3)

Energy Poverty by Scott Tinker
In discussions with environmental activists who are protesting new industrialization to expand the distribution of fossil fuels, my mantra has been "good science, good policy and good sense". Scott eloquently presents this argument in a thoughtful and well researched manner that every scientist and activist should hear..
11/13/2019 8:57:33 AM
The Moral Case For Fossil Fuels...
...by Alex Epstein, is an informative look at how fossil fuels have shaped our lives over the past several decades, providing an increase in standard of living, quality of life and life expectancy. "For decades, environmentalists have told us that using fossil fuels is a self-destructive addiction that will destroy our planet. Yet at the same time, by every measure of human well-being, from life expectancy to clean water to climate safety, life has been getting better and better." Scott, your article does a good job in summarizing, in large part, what the book breaks down in eye-opening detail. Yes, education is the key! Thank you. Paul Belvedere - Geologist
Show more
11/12/2019 11:43:23 AM
Climate Change
Thank you Scott Tinker for sensible discussion and solutions. get this to wider distribution. Tom Cambridge-- geologist
11/12/2019 10:56:19 AM
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