Past is not prologue when it comes to expanding energy access to countries that need it most.

That is one of the central conclusions of a new report, Energy for Human Development, which was released by the Oakland-based Breakthrough Institute. Written by Ted Nordhaus, Shaiyra Devi and Alex Trembath, the report examines the factors that have been consistently present to enable modernization and an improvement in living standards.

The authors argue that the process of modernization, which is accompanied by industrialization, has literally been fueled by abundant energy -- most of it coal and oil, although natural gas, hydroelectric power and nukes have contributed as well.

According to the authors, investments in energy to support commercial and industrial enterprises have always come before efforts to extend energy access to residential users. Put another way, devoting resources to channel energy to job-creating factories and businesses has been a recipe to enrich society generally and -- as a consequence -- to make it possible for individuals and families to reap the benefits of modernization.

“It is the investments in commercial and industrial activity that allow people to generate income to purchase appliances in their homes and that allow people to connect to the grid in the first place,” said Alex Trembath, one of the report’s authors, in an interview.

But that approach is not the one favored in recent years by the World Bank and innumerable Western NGOs, argue the authors. Instead, their focus has been to tackle energy poverty at the household level by investing primarily in technologies like microgrids, solar and batteries that don’t need central grids and utility companies.

“A big part of our problem with the way the energy poverty conversation has cohered in the last decade is it’s very residential-facing,” said Trembath. “It neglects, omits and ignores the very processes that allow societies to enrich themselves and gain income-generating services and to proliferate commercial activity, the very things that can lift people out of poverty.” 

Energy consumption, not access

In short, the report makes the case that recent initiatives to address energy poverty ignore what has worked in the past, and instead rely on technology fixes made possible by the dramatic price reductions in solar, microgrids and batteries. Furthermore, Trembath says this approach -- and a focus on energy access rather than providing sufficient energy for advances in societal wealth and health -- won’t lead to substantial reductions in poverty.

“The conversation is not technically about energy for human development. It’s about energy poverty versus energy access,” he said.

Access through microgrids and solar often means enough energy to charge a cellphone or run a fan. Those steps matter at the individual level, said Trembath, but they’re not transformative.

“Those are not holistic, comprehensive solutions to poverty, which is not just a household phenomenon; it’s a society-wide phenomenon,” he said. “If you want to address poverty and security and human well-being, then we continue to think these historically successful modernization processes are important.” 

That doesn't mean the report’s authors are dismissing the value of clean, distributed energy or advocating a massive build-out of coal plants. After all, when the Breakthrough Institute was founded in 2007, it was committed to promoting technology innovation and policies that make clean energy so cheap fossil fuels are rendered obsolete. That goal remains the same.

But the demands of poverty reduction complicate that quest.

“We want zero-carbon energy and we want next-generation energy. But very often in poor countries, things like oil, natural gas and coal -- and depending on how you define dirty energy, even big hydro -- are often an immediate benefit to poor societies,” said Trembath.

The future mix of generation sources in developing nations will vary by geography, local resources, the strength of institutions and other factors. Already, the authors note, China and India have made significant investments in both conventional and clean energy development, while sub-Saharan Africa has large enough supplies of natural gas and undeveloped hydro that it could bypass coal altogether. What is unrealistic, say the authors, is to expect developing nations to forgo the high levels of energy consumption that lead to improved lives, even if it means tapping coal and other dirty sources of energy. 

Given their interpretation of history, it’s not surprising that the report’s authors prefer priorities that deliver an abundance of energy as quickly as possible. 

There is a place for off-grid technologies, though the report says they should be “an on-ramp, not a cul-de-sac.”

“Can solar and microgrids in these places accelerate the path to modern energy consumption? Absolutely, but that has to be part of the goal,” said Trembath. “When there’s coordination with a local utility or a central government body, then these things can happen in parallel -- and you have a microgrid that connects to the grid or a microgrid that powers a local mill or agro-processing plant.”

Beyond 2 degrees Celsius

The report authors also argue for combining conversations about climate change and energy for human development. Indeed, Trembath pointed out that climate stabilization scenarios for 2035 still leave about 1 billion people worldwide without electricity. “From our point of view, that is unrealistic. It’s practically unlikely and morally unacceptable,” he says. “The world’s governments and societies won’t accept that outcome in the name of decarbonization.”

Which is why the report declares the target of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius “infeasible.” The report points out that the 2-degree target is not likely to be met even if energy poverty persists.

“Two degrees is no longer really a useful framework to think about climate mitigation in our view,” said Trembath. “If you leave that 2-degree threshold as a centering metaphor, then that is like saying we are running out of time to address poverty. You are not racing against the clock against poverty. You want to eliminate it as fast as possible. We should want to do the same with high energy and zero carbon. In our view, there’s no hard and fast deadline or threshold like two degrees. We should stabilize emissions as low and fast as possible.”  

Of course, there are plenty of people who would argue that off-grid solar, batteries and microgrids is the right one. Proponents of distributed energy point out that grid expansion efforts over the last few decades have failed to reach people in need. And with the cost of renewables falling, clean alternatives are also becoming far more competitive to centralized fossil fuels.

Earlier this year on GTM, Daniel Tomlinson argued for the rapid scale-up of off-grid, pay-as-you-go-solar in the developing world. “It’s time we break with the calcified mentality that bigger is always better. Bigger and excessive is usually inefficient and expensive,” he wrote. “We should instead think about how to stretch a small amount of power a long, long way and yet get more of what we want. This is accomplished through designing energy solutions and approaching energy challenges with a mentality that doesn’t limit us to old thinking.”

Here’s something we already know from history: This debate will no doubt intensify.