Electricity makes modern human existence possible. Lack of access to electricity locks people and communities into poverty that is hard to escape. In Episode 15 of Earth Intelligence, we welcome Robert Bryce, whose work highlights the liberating power of electricity and the challenge of getting it to everyone sustainably.
Robert Bryce is a Texas-based author, journalist and public speaker. He has been writing about energy, power, innovation, and politics for 30 years. His books include Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper and Power Hungry. His articles have appeared in Time, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. His sixth book, A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations was the inspiration for the documentary Juice: How Electricity Explains the World.
Host Don Shelby opens by asking if Bryce believes in his heart that “Electricity is the ultimate poverty killer.”
He answers that he has seen for himself what electricity poverty means. One stark example, he says, was what happened to people in Puerto Rico who had lived with electricity their whole lives, and then had none after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. “Their lives were turned totally upside down,” he said. The difference between an electrified life and an unelectrified life is “transformational” he notes, adding that “it changes people.”
Not only are the everyday experiences, tasks, and allocation of time, altered by electricity. What people can do, think, choose, and be, is also transformed. Their ability to be in the world and to affect the world is affected by access to electricity.
A crucial insight, notes Bryce, is that electricity “is key to liberating women and girls from, essentially, domestic slavery”. In the unelectrified world, women not only see educational opportunities cut off; they also find themselves spending prohibitive amounts of time and energy on washing, gathering or pumping fresh water, and cooking in lethally smoke-filled kitchens. Electricity reduces these burdens, and also raises the quality of life of whole societies.
The question we face now, as ever, is how we can produce the amount of electricity needed to bring that opportunity to everyone. About 3 billion people live in places where per-capita electricity consumption is less than the average annual consumption of one refrigerator in the US. Roughly 1 billion people have no access to electricity.
A key question, says Bryce, is the so-called “modern energy minimum”, which he recently discussed on his own podcast.
- The theoretical minimum, required to provide a basic amount of everyday liberation, is 1,000 kWh (kiloWatt hours) per person per year.
- The global average is 3,000 kWh per person per year.
- Studies suggest that above 4,000 kWh per person per year, quality of life does not substantially improve.
- Americans use, on average, 12,000 kWh per person per year.
The heavy industrial grid, while a major feat of engineering, and one of the most transformative breakthroughs in world history, has practical limitations. It is costly to build and maintain, so poor and marginal communities are often beyond its reach. This creates not only the temptation, but what some view as the need for electricity theft. Corruption also prevents the direction of public resources to this most fundamental contemporary public good.
Strong civil societies, it turns out, are critical to achieving affordable energy and reliable grids. Strong institutions, capable of reliable production, fair billing practices, and transparency in all of their operations, in the public and private sectors, are needed. None of this, however, answers the sustainability question: Is it possible to produce enough electricity for everyone if all electricity is produced in clean, environmentally friendly ways?
Robert Bryce favors nuclear power for this reason, as a way to achieve high-volume reliable electricity generation, on a relatively small physical footprint. There is, however, also a movement toward highly decentralized, small modular micro-grids. Joe asks if there is a possibility electricity, being so fundamental to the public welfare, should eventually integrate a zero marginal cost business model, with revenues coming from services or energy and information management.
During the New Deal, there was a commitment from government in the US to build society back better from the Great Depression by harnessing the transformative power of electricity. Funding for rural development of electricity generation was critical to that process. We may well be in a global moment, with the need to build back better from the COVID-related economic crisis, where that kind of commitment to liberating people everywhere from darkness and drudgery, in ways that are healthy and sustainable.