This Christmas morning, one billion people will wake up wishing for coal in their stockings.
That’s how many people around the world have no electricity, and billions more have woefully sporadic access — men, women, and children just like you and me who live difficult, brutal, and short lives.
Though it’s posh to hate on fossil fuels, especially coal, American energy has the power to end global poverty — if the government gets out of the way and lets the free market flourish.
Energy poverty, though little-known and even less talked about, may be the top social problem of our time, yet it’s one of the easiest to fix. While headlines fixate on hot topics like gender pronouns and statues of slave owners, the non-issues that dominate our media pale in comparison to the real, life-shortening poverty unfolding right now across oceans.
Life without electricity is a life of devastating scarcity. Think beyond Tik Tok and Amazon Prime: electricity powers everything we need to survive.
We’re seeing the necessity of affordable, reliable energy unfold right now as researchers, whose labs are powered by electricity, put the pedal to the metal to develop COVID-19 vaccines in record time. Those vaccines are shipped using fossil fuels and stored in specialized ultra-cold refrigerators that need power to function. Vaccinations are logged in patients’ electronic medical records so all their health care providers stay up to date. And dissemination of information online has been critical to keeping citizens informed and sharing tactics to slow the spread.
COVID-19 may seem scary for the average American, especially for those with immune concerns, but it’s sobering to know that much deadlier diseases like tuberculosis and dysentery aren’t just relegated to history books. They kill millions in developing nations every year, especially children, and commonplace illnesses like diarrhea are just as lethal. These needless deaths can be easily prevented with the basic infrastructure we take for granted — all of which require access to electricity.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the average adult wouldn’t expect to live past 60. That’s tremendous progress over the average life expectancy of 55 a decade ago and just 40 in 1960 — but more can and should be done. Yet the Obama administration blocked foreign aid to clean coal projects in Africa.
Clean coal and natural gas could liberate developing nations from grim poverty. From providing basic necessities to creating unprecedented economic opportunities, fossil fuels could be the key to not just fighting, but ending, extreme poverty around the globe.
So why not just ship solar panels to the third world? Though the image of quaint African huts powered by the sun seems like an easy solution to the wealthy West, in reality, unreliable electricity is hardly a step up from no electricity. The truly life-saving benefits — sanitation, clean water, refrigeration to store medicines, and safe cooking and heating fuels — require constant power.
When one Colombian village decided to install a solar-powered light, as shared in the documentary Switch On, they learned they also needed a large battery to store the electricity until nighttime. The battery is so expensive they’ll need to raise $10,000 to $15,000 just to replace it when it wears out in 10 years’ time. That’s a lot of effort for a single street light, whereas electricity from fossil fuels can be generated efficiently and cheaply at any time of day, in any weather, without costly battery storage. Coal and natural gas power plants can also last for decades, with parts that can be easily recycled.
Fossil fuels are vilified in popular culture, but America’s abundant energy reserves and advanced pollution control technology that have made us a world leader in economic growth and environmental quality have nearly limitless potential for the developing world.
You may have thoughts on who in your life should get coal for Christmas — but the developing world should, too. They would be merry indeed.