Tag Archives: benefits of electricity

The Rise of Electricity: Offering Longevity, Improved Living Standards, and a Healthier Planet

By Frank Clemente
Professor Emeritus of Social Science and
Former Director of the Environmental Policy Center,
Penn State University

In 1972, The United Nations’ Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment issued the following Declaration: “Both aspects of man’s environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights, the right to life itself.”1 In other words, people are part of the environment too. The Stockholm Declaration stressed that vast numbers of people continue to live far below the minimum conditions required for a decent human existence, deprived of adequate food and clothing, shelter and education, health and sanitation. The Conference concluded that economic and social development are essential for ensuring a favorable living and working environment for humans and for creating conditions on earth that are necessary for the improvement of the quality of life.

Electricity is the foundation of such development and is the lifeblood of modern society. The U.S. National Academy of Engineering identified societal electrification as the “greatest engineering achievement” of the 20th century, during which the global population grew by over four billion people, the rise of the metropolis occurred, transportation was revolutionized, medical care improved dramatically, and a vast system of electronic communication emerged.2,3

Electricity supports quality of life increases, economic well-being, and a clean environment. Electricity is highly unique compared to other forms of energy:

  • Flexible—convertible to virtually any energy service—light, motion, heat, electronics, and chemical potential
  • Permits previously unattainable precision, control, and speed
  • Provides temperature and energy density far greater than those attainable from standard fuels
  • Does not require a buildup of inertia—offering instantaneous access to energy at the point of use

Although it may seem counterintuitive to some, electrification offers tremendous environmental benefits. Electro-technologies are more efficient than their fuel-burning counterparts and, unlike traditional fuels burned by the user, no waste and emissions evolve at the point of use—no smoke, ash, combustion gas, noise, or odor. Clearly, it’s important that there are emissions controls in place when electricity is generated; controlling criteria emissions (e.g., particulate matter, SOx, NOx, mercury) at the source of large-scale electricity generation is possible using commercially available technologies. In addition, electrification increases the efficiency of society’s primary energy consumption and, therefore, reduces the energy intensity of greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies are also being developed that will allow for the carbon footprint of fossil fuel-based sources of electricity to be dramatically reduced.

New power lines providing access to electricity allow for energy to be utilized with increasing efficiency.

New power lines providing access to electricity allow for energy to be utilized with increasing efficiency.

Given these beneficial attributes of electric power, it is not surprising that demand continues to increase. Since 1970, the global demand for electricity has more than quadrupled from approximately 5200 TWh to almost 23,000 TWh, with ~42% of this incremental demand being met by coal, which is why this fuel source has been referred to as the cornerstone of global power.4

Despite the staggering past growth of electricity demand, the future world will require far greater amounts of power. The Current Policies scenario in the IEA’s 2013 World Energy Outlook projected a 80% increase in power generation between 2011 and 2035.4 However, the center of that projected incremental growth reflects a global shift; from 1980 to 2000, almost a quarter of the global increase in generation came from the U.S., Japan, and Europe. Over the next 20 years, these developed nations will be relatively minor players in growth, while developing Asia will account for over 60% of new generation, led by China, where the increase alone will be about 6500 TWh—or about twice the current output of the EU. Coal will be the mainstay of the next generation as well, accounting for over 40% of electricity in 2035.4

The empirical realities of at least three societal trends demonstrate the magnitude of the emerging need for major increases in electricity generation:

  1. Economic growth
  2. Population increase
  3. Urbanization

The projections are staggering. By 2050, the global economy is projected to quadruple to US$280 trillion in real terms. At least 80% of this increase will be in the developing world, and many of these nations will depend on coal to advance their economies. By 2050, the world will add 2.4 billion people—67 million every year or 184,000 every day.5 In essence, the entire population of Rome is added to the global rolls every two weeks. Most of these people will either be born in, or will move to, ever-growing cities. Urbanization may offer the chance to lift oneself out of poverty, but the electricity must be available to support the business and industries that can provide much-needed opportunities.


Figure 1 provides a comparison of the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) and the per capita electricity utilization of many nations. Note that the major aspects of the HDI, such as life expectancy, educational attainment, and per capita GDP, are statistically related to increased access and utilization of electricity.

FIGURE 1. Human Development Index versus electricity use6

FIGURE 1. Human Development Index versus electricity use6

The Copenhagen Accord of 2009 concluded that “economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing country Parties.”7 Energy, particularly electricity, is the pathway to achieving these goals. More than 1.3 billion people have no electricity at all and billions more have inadequate access to power.4 Electricity deprivation in the developing world takes a mighty toll. The impact on children and women is stark: According to the UN, about 17,000 children die each day from causes that are preventable with sufficient electricity, including access to clean water, better sanitation, adequate food, medicine, and more education to improve earning power—all things that can be taken for granted in the developed West.8 At least 1.5 billion women and girls live on less than $2 per day, and this feminization of poverty is endemic to areas without electric power.9 Merely gathering traditional fuels consumes a large part of a woman’s day throughout the developing world. Girls are kept out of school to obtain fuel. In areas such as South Darfur, women walk up to seven hours per day to collect fuel, making mothers and their daughters highly susceptible to robbery, violence, and rape. This inequitable access to energy has far-reaching socioeconomic ramifications. For example, the infant mortality rate in Germany is less than four per 1000 live births; in Nigeria, it is 74. In the European Union, virtually 100% of the population has improved sanitation; in Indonesia alone, 104 million people lack such sanitation.10

No nation holds more of the world’s poor than India. At least 300 million people have no power whatsoever and more than 700 million people lack access to modern energy services for lighting, cooking, water pumping, and other productive purposes. One hundred million do not have an improved water supply and over 800 million lack access to improved sanitation. These problems will only intensify going forward as India has about 630 million people less than 25 years old and will surpass China as the most populated nation before 2030.11

Sub-Saharan Africa, a region with a population of more than 900 million people, uses less electricity per year (145 TWh) than the U.S. state of Alabama (155 TWh) with just 4.8 million residents.12,13 There is only enough electricity generated in the sub-Sahara to power one light bulb per person for three hours a day.14 Africa has 15% of the world’s population—50% of these people live without electricity. In fact, of the 25 nations at the bottom of the UN HDI (see Figure 1), 24 are in Africa.15

In Cambodia, 69% of the population lacks access to electricity. In Pakistan, it is 33% and in Uganda an astounding 92%. Of the almost 160 million people in Bangladesh, 63 million lack access to any sort of electric power.16 About three billion people use rudimentary stoves to burn wood, coal, charcoal, and animal dung, releasing dense black soot into their homes and the environment. Annual deaths from this household air pollution exceed four million per year.17,18 This gathering and burning of wood and other biomass leads to deforestation, erosion, land degradation, and contaminated water supplies. Families are pushed off the land and migrate to cities in search of a better life.


Much energy poverty occurs in rural locations; in such settings, off-grid options, such as roof-top solar, have much to contribute. Undoubtedly, such solutions must play a role. In the near term, more efficient stoves and cleaner cooking fuels could dramatically improve indoor air quality and save lives. However, rural off-grid solutions may only meet the minimum standards for electricity. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for rural, minimal electrification to support the job-creating growth and industries so sorely needed to fundamentally address energy poverty. Perhaps most importantly, to expect to rely only on off-grid solutions because of where energy poverty occurs today ignores a pressing reality: rapid global urbanization.

An increasingly urban global population presents challenges, but also an opportunity to increase electrification rates.

An increasingly urban global population presents challenges, but also an opportunity to increase electrification rates.

Urban migration is occurring on an unprecedented scale—over seven billion people will live in cities by 2050. The cities of the future will be massive. In 1990, the world had 10 cities of over 10 million people. By 2050, there could be as many as 100 such “megacities”.19 The number of people urbanizing in India alone will exceed 11 million per year—equivalent to the current population of Delhi proper. Cities cannot be built without electricity, steel, cement, and associated materials. The level of production required for these materials depends on adequate resources, including electricity, being available. There is a model for such growth and urbanization that already exists. China has demonstrated that low-cost electricity, fueled 70% by coal, can be a solution to debilitating energy poverty. Over the last 20 years, China has expanded access to electricity and lifted over 650 million people out of poverty.20 In fact, at the global level, over 90% of people lifted from poverty since 1990 were Chinese; power generation from coal in China increased 700% and GDP per capita rose eightfold.21

During the same period, life expectancy increased by five years, infant mortality declined 60%, and 600 million people gained new access to improved water sources.22 As women are disproportionately affected by energy poverty, they are also major beneficiaries when it is alleviated. The maternal mortality ratio in China has dropped from 110 per 1000 live births to 32 in 2013.23 Today universal access to electricity has been achieved in China, allowing families to light their homes, refrigerate food and medicine, and reduce indoor air pollution through more efficient means of cooking.

The industrialization and electrification of China has come at a price. The largest cities are experiencing major air pollution problems and both direct coal combustion for heating and coal-fired power plants contribute to this problem. Although China is expected to continue to rely on coal for electrification, the country plans to dramatically reduce the emissions from coal-fired power plants by replacing older plants with advanced coal-fired units, adding environmental controls, and increasing efficiency via cogeneration of heat and power. In addition, state-of-the-art coal conversion facilities are moving forward. These ultra-clean facilities will produce synthetic natural gas, liquid fuels, and chemicals, although CCS, which will be much less expensive at such facilities, will be required to control CO2 emissions. The liquid fuels produced from coal conversion inherently have less sulfur than petroleum-derived fuels, which can address another major contributor to air pollution by offering cleaner transportation fuels. Finally, the potential for less direct coal use is significant: Only about 53% of China’s coal demand is for power generation, compared to over 90% in the U.S.4 Together, these steps could significantly reduce China’s air quality problems and allow continued economic growth.


The International Energy Agency (IEA) has defined basic electricity access as an average of 250 kWh per rural household per year and 500 kWh per urban household per year.24 Such limited access is far removed from levels of modern consumption. Basic energy access as defined for rural areas would be enough for a household to power a fan, a mobile phone, and two fluorescent light bulbs for five hours a day (see Figure 2).

FIGURE 2. Electricity access of select nations and a comparison to IEA’s basic energy service in rural settings24 *250 kWh per rural household, 500 kWh per urban household

FIGURE 2. Electricity access of select nations and a comparison to IEA’s basic energy service in rural settings24
*250 kWh per rural household, 500 kWh per urban household

Although even this basic level of electrification would increase the standard of living for some people, it is not enough to enable the growth and job creation needed to combat poverty. Perhaps this is best explained by the Worldwatch Institute: “Modern energy sources provide people with lighting, heating, refrigeration, cooking, water pumping and other services that are essential for reducing poverty.”25 I believe that providing only basic energy to developing nations will constitute “global poverty maintenance” programs in the name of universal energy access.


All viable electricity sources will play roles in coming decades if real strides are going to be made to alleviate energy poverty. In fact, the world will need more electricity from all sources. Forecasters such as the IEA are already projecting major increases in on-grid electricity generation from gas (89%), nuclear (51%), and non-hydro renewables (358%) from 2011 to 2035 under the Current Policies Scenario.4 These resources will be pushed, as will be coal. Today coal provides about 6000 TWh of electricity in the developing world. In 2035, the IEA’s Current Policies Scenario projects coal will provide 12,300 TWh. Even in the IEA’s much more conservative New Policies Scenario (assuming all new policies announced are fully enacted), coal accounts for over 9500 TWh in 2035. Replacing coal in this growth context would be impossible—and such efforts would yield an increase in energy poverty. In many countries, comparing the percentage of generation capacity to percentage of actual generation also helps to highlight coal’s real role: Coal’s share of generation (as a percentage) is almost always significantly greater than its capacity percentage. For decades, coal has been the default fuel when sanguine projections of gas, nuclear, and wind have fallen short. This is one of the reasons the IEA has projected that coal will supply at least 50% of the on-grid electricity to eliminate energy poverty by 2030.24

Clearly, attempting to remove the contribution of one energy source is not a viable strategy—especially when attempting to eradicate energy poverty. Nevertheless, western financial institutions such as the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the World Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have refused to fund coal projects even in areas of abject electricity poverty. Such a stance disregards the need for widespread electrification above and beyond basic access. It can also be argued that such a position is counterproductive to the fundamental objective of such institutions, which is to promote development and alleviate poverty.


Development banks and other poverty alleviation groups do not need to choose between alleviating poverty and environmental protection. As has been explained, there are substantial environmental benefits to electrification. In addition, clean electricity generation from coal could be assured by sup-
porting plants with high efficiency, advanced environmental controls, and that are made ready to implement CCS/CCUS.

Clean coal technologies are in use today and allow for the consumption of more coal with greatly reduced emissions. New pulverized coal combustion systems, utilizing supercritical technology, operate at increasingly higher temperatures and pressures and, therefore, achieve higher efficiencies than conventional plants. Upwards of 500 GW of supercritical units are in operation or planned around the world, but many more are needed.26 Highly efficient modern coal plants emit up to 40% less CO2 than the average coal plant currently installed.27 Importantly, these supercritical plants are a prerequisite for next-generation development of CCUS, which itself is broadly recognized as required for global emission goals, which was the other important component of the Copenhagen Accord.


The underlying theme of the position presented here is straightforward: Electricity, socioeconomic security, and a clean environment are inalienable human rights. Efforts to eliminate coal-fired power plants would forgo an opportunity to help meet burgeoning electricity demand, reduce deprivation, elevate the global quality of life, and significantly reduce emissions from energy. Without contributions from coal, economic growth will be stunted, the environment will be degraded, and the crisis of energy poverty will not be solved. If a global goal is truly the “[e]radication of poverty in the field,” the world’s most abundant source of electricity must remain an integral part of the solution.28 Policymakers must recognize the scale of electricity required to meet that goal. By 2050, the world will have 9.6 billion people, with the large majority in cities, where they have fuller access to electricity. I agree with many coal industry leaders that we should implement a technologically based plan, which will help meet the ever-rising need for power and improve the lot of all members of the human race.

The five most important steps of a plan to increase access to clean electricity include:

  1. Work to eliminate energy poverty by ensuring that at least half of on-grid new generation is fueled by coal
  2. Replace older, traditional coal plants with plants utilizing advanced coal technologies
  3. Develop at least 100 major CCS/CCUS projects around the world within 10 years
  4. Deploy significant coal-to-gas, coal-to-chemicals, and coal-to-liquids projects globally in the next decade, which will spur industry and reduce pollution from transportation fuels. Note that such projects would be particularly useful for low-cost CCS/CCUS demonstrations.
  5. Commercialize next-generation clean coal technologies to achieve near-zero emissions, with supercritical power plants as the next step along that path

This plan employs 21st century coal technology to cleanly and affordably use abundant global reserves—which approach 900 billion tonnes, are distributed across 70 countries, and are accessible through a far reaching and expanded network of established infrastructure—to produce and deliver electricity to all, especially to the billions of children, women, and men who currently live in energy poverty.29


  1. United Nations (UN). (1972, 16 June). Report of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?documentid=97&articleid=1503
  2. National Academy of Engineering. (2003). The greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century, www.nationalacademies.org/greatachievements/List.PDF
  3. International Energy Agency (IEA). (2002, September). World energy outlook 2002, www.worldenergyoutlook.org/media/weowebsite/2008-1994/weo2002_part1.pdf, www.worldenergyoutlook.org/media/weowebsite/2008-1994/weo2002_part2.pdf
  4. IEA. (2013, October). World energy outlook 2013.
  5. UN News Centre. (2013, 13 June). World population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45165#.VDXo9haNWFI
  6. World Bank. (2013). World development indicators: Human Development Index, 2013, data.worldbank.org/indicator
  7. UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. (2009). Full Text of the Convention, unfccc.int/essential_background/convention/background/items/1362.php
  8. UN. (2014). We can end poverty, www.un.org/millenniumgoals/childhealth.shtml (accessed October 2014).
  9. SowHope. (2013). About us, www.sowhope.org/aboutus
  10. Central Intelligence Agency. (2013). The world factbook, Nigeria, Germany, Indonesia, www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/
  11. Rajendram, D. (2013, 10 March). The promise and peril of India’s youth bulge. The Diplomat, thediplomat.com/2013/03/the-promise-and-peril-of-indias-youth-bulge/
  12. U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2014, February). Electric power monthly, www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/current_year/february2014.pdf
  13. IRENA. (2012). Africa’s renewable future, www.irena.org/DocumentDownloads/Publications/Africa_renewable_future.pdf
  14. World Bank. (2013). Fact sheet: Infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa, web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/AFRICAEXT/0,,contentMDK:21951811~pagePK:146736~piPK:146830~theSitePK:258644,00.html
  15. SABC. (2013, 25 May). Free Africa from poverty and conflict: AU, www.sabc.co.za/news/a/8bce1b804fc0bb519d4eff0b5d39e4bb/Free-Africa-from-poverty-and-conflict:-AU-20132505
  16. World Bank. (2013). Access to electricity (% of population), data, worldbank.org/indicator/EG.ELC.ACCS.ZS
  17. Yamada, G. (2013). Fires, fuel and the fate of 3 billion. New York: Oxford University Press.
  18. World Health Organization. (2014). Household (indoor) air pollution, www.who.int/indoorair/en/
  19. World Energy Council. (2011, December). Global Transport Scenarios 2050, www.worldenergy.org/publications/2011/global
  20. Mackenzie, A. (2013, 8 August). Productivity boost will keep us at No. 1. The Australian, www.theaustralian.com.au/business/opinion/productivity-boost-will-keep-us-at-no-1/story-e6frg9if-1226693062147
  21. UN. (2013). We can end poverty, www.un.org/millenniumgoals/poverty.shtml
  22. World Bank. (2013). World development indicators, data, worldbank.org/indicator, (accessed 2013).
  23. World Bank. (2014). World development indicators, data, worldbank.org/indicator, (accessed October 2014).
  24. IEA. (2011, November). World energy outlook 2011, www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/world-energy-outlook-2011.html
  25. Worldwatch Institute. (2012, 31 January). Energy poverty remains a global challenge for the future, www.worldwatch.org/energy-poverty-remains-global-challenge-future-1
  26. Platts. (2014). New Power Plant Database, 2014.
  27. World Energy Council. (2013). World energy resources: Coal, www.worldenergy.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/WER
  28. European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Eradicating poverty in the field, www.ebrd.com/pages/news/features/taff.shtml
  29. BP. (2014, August). Statistical review of world energy, www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/pdf/Energy-economics/statistical-review-2014/BP-statistical-review-of-world-energy-2014-full-report.pdf

The author can be reached at fac226@psu.edu


The content in Cornerstone does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Coal Association or its members.