Shift to renewable energy increases risk of energy poverty

The transition towards renewable energy could drive energy poverty around the world, according to a new Portland State University study.

While the shift away from fossil fuels such as oil and coal can help reduce carbon emissions, it may do so at the expense of increased inequality. This is a key finding of a new study from Portland State University.

The findings support previous claims by researchers who argue that renewable energy consumption may be indirectly driving energy poverty. Energy poverty is when a household has no or inadequate access to energy services such as heating, cooling, lighting, and use of appliances due to a combination of factors such as low income, increasing utility rates, and inefficient buildings and appliances.

“People who are just making ends meet and can barely afford their energy bills will make a choice between food and their energy,”  Julius McGee, assistant professor at Portland State University, said in a press release. “We don’t think of energy as a human right when it actually is. The things that consume the most energy in your household – heating, cooling, refrigeration – are the things you absolutely need.”

The researchers looked at 175 countries from 1990 to 2014 and found that renewable energy consumption reduces carbon emissions more effectively when it occurs in a context of increasing inequality.

In the US, for example, the shift to renewable energy is done through incentives such as tax subsidies, which reduces energy costs for homeowners who can afford to install solar panels or energy-efficient appliances, but increases utility bills for the rest of customers – including many low-income families.

In poorer nations, in contrast, renewable energy can help alleviate energy poverty by granting access to electricity to communities that historically never had access to energy.

“That’s not having any impact on carbon dioxide emissions because those rural communities never used fossil fuels in the first place,” explained McGee.

The researchers recommend that policymakers implement tools that are aimed at both reducing inequality and reducing emissions.

“We really need to think more holistically about how we address renewable energy,” McGee said. “We need to be focusing on addressing concerns around housing and energy poverty before we actually think about addressing climate change within the confines of a consumer sovereignty model.”

Image credit: Centre for Alternative Technology via Flickr

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