The first thing Aysha picks up when she opens her eyes to the warm glow of the morning sun is not an iPhone, not an alarm clock, not even a glass of water. It’s her collection of large plastic gasoline canisters. The 13-year-old Ethiopian straps them to her camel — which her family is lucky to have — and begins the four-plus-hour walk to the nearest river. The water there is dirty and brown and unsanitary, but it’s water, and her family needs it to survive.
Aysha doesn’t get back home until the sun is already setting. Meanwhile, her brother has gone to school.
President Biden’s administration — between cries for unity, equity, and an end to poverty and oppression — is beginning to enact policies that will deny Aysha and the countless girls like her the opportunity to move from bleak, backbreaking destitution to a self-actualized life of equality and opportunity.
Energy poverty is among the most crippling but least talked-about crises of the 21st century. Billions like Aysha in Africa, Southeast Asia, South America, and even parts of the United States live with little to no access to electricity. Electricity is the one of the simplest solutions to improved health, economic opportunity, education, nutrition, and comfort in the developing world, especially for women and girls.
Yet among President Biden’s “Climate Day” executive orders is a unilateral ban on “international financing of carbon-intensive fossil fuel-based energy.” In layman’s terms, the United States of America will no longer extend foreign aid funds to developing nations seeking affordable, reliable energy to lift their citizens out of poverty.
For Aysha, that funding could have offered clean running water flowing right to her home, a safer way to cook without inhaling the toxic fumes from burning wood, kerosene or even dung, the opportunity to go to school like her brother, and even such simple gifts as walking safely through her village at night.
Westerners unfamiliar with the harsh realities of extreme poverty — many well-meaning renewable energy advocates among them — might imagine shipping solar panels to Africa to be a simple fix. But reaching anywhere near constant power via renewable energy requires deploying massive quantities of renewable energy infrastructure along with expensive battery storage for when the wind isn’t blowing or sun isn’t shining.
As attractive as off-grid solar might sound for developing countries, there just isn’t enough battery storage in the world — and there won’t be for several generations — to make renewables more than a tiny Band-Aid on a gaping wound.
And without battery storage (or fossil fuel power backup generation), electricity that only works sometimes is little better than no electricity at all. Intermittent, occasional power doesn’t help hospitals refrigerate life-saving vaccines, schools and churches feed hungry children, or entrepreneurs start their businesses.
Instead, the best solution to lift communities like Aysha’s around the world out of poverty remains affordable, reliable energy from fossil fuels. It’s no accident that nearly every statistic we use to measure quality of life has improved drastically along with increasing use, and decreasing cost, of fossil fuels. Electricity makes every part of our lives both easier and safer.
That includes climate resiliency. Climate-related deaths have plummeted 98.9% since the last century, and that will only improve as more people get access to better health care, more sophisticated emergency management, safer homes, and the other myriad benefits of electricity. Improving the climate resiliency of developing nations by providing greater energy access will yield real benefits regardless of how the climate changes in the future.
The abundant fossil energy we produce in the United States — and the technology that makes it both cost-effective and clean — could offer these revolutionary benefits to the developing world for a remarkably small price.
If President Biden’s administration is serious about fighting poverty and leading the world in pursuit of equity, it should start by reversing the ban on fossil fuel financing for the developing world.
This commentary originally appeared in RealClearEnergy on March 3, 2021.