Energy Access: why coal is not the way out of energy poverty

Carbon Tracker Initiative, 2014

This Carbon Tracker report shows how rural communities in Africa and India suffering most from a lack of modern energy can exploit the falling costs of renewable power to access electricity without the need for expensive grid transmission networks.

The report’s findings are in stark contrast to the views of the global coal industry, whose biggest publicly traded company Peabody Energy Corp, maintains coal is “essential to meet the scale of Africa’s desperate need for electricity.”

Some of the main points highlighted by the report are:

Energy access is primarily a rural issue. 84% of those without energy access live in rural areas. Our analysis focuses on sub-Saharan Africa and India which account for 48% and 24% of those without energy access respectively.

Grid costs are prohibitive for coal in rural areas. When the cost of introducing grid infrastructure is included in cost comparison, off-grid or mini-grid renewables are cheaper than a new grid and coal power station. The IEA see 59% of energy access being supplied by mini-grids or off-grid to deliver universal access by 2030; the majority of grid connections relate to urban areas due to additional costs for each kilometre of grid extension.


grid cost image

Indicative levelized costs of electricity for on-grid, mini-grid and off-grid technologies in sub-Saharan Africa, 2012

Source: IEA


Coal is not distributed well to serve Africa’s energy poor. Only 7% of the people in sub-Saharan African countries who lack access to energy live in countries with producing coal assets. The coal production is concentrated in the very south of the continent and transport links are poor. This suggests that many African countries with energy access issues are unlikely to follow the coal-based industrialisation seen historically in other parts of the world.

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Percentage of population without energy access in Sub-Saharan countries with producing coal assets

Renewables are improving lives now. Even in places that currently lack a centralized grid, low-cost off-grid interventions are enabling households with initial access to the “energy ladder” at a fraction of the cost of grid extension, providing immediate benefits. This may only provide a few hours of light or mobile phone charging initially, which does not register as full energy access, but contributes to education and livelihoods.

Read the full report here