For over two centuries, rising energy consumption powered by coal, oil, natural gas, hydroelectric power, and nuclear energy—combined with modern agriculture, cities, and governance—has fueled a virtuous cycle of socioeconomic development. It has enabled people in many parts of the world to live longer, healthier, and more prosperous lives. Along with these material gains have come liberalizing social values, the ability to pursue more meaningful work, and environmental progress.
Yet roughly two billion people have still not made the transition to modern fuels and energy systems. These populations remain trapped in what we call “the wood economy.” Living in the wood economy means relying on wood, dung, and other basic bioenergy. In this economy, life choices are extremely limited, labor is menial and backbreaking, and poverty is endemic. There is little ability to produce wealth beyond what is necessary to grow enough food to meet minimal nutritional needs.
Although there is broad global agreement that everyone should have access to modern energy, there is no similar clarity about how best to achieve that outcome, how to mitigate climate change and other environmental harm associated with energy development, or even what actually constitutes energy access. Too often, initiatives to address energy poverty have fetishized very low levels of household electricity consumption—a light bulb and cell phone charger, perhaps a fan and a small television—without attending to the broader context that makes higher levels of energy consumption and modern living standards possible. As a result, contemporary efforts to expand access to modern energy have overwhelmingly focused upon the provision of small-scale, off-grid, and decentralized energy technologies that, while checking the box marked energy access, are incapable of serving the variety of energy end uses that are necessary to eliminate energy poverty.
Energy consumption, not energy access, is the metric that is strongly correlated with positive human development outcomes, and there is a strong bidirectional relationship between rising energy consumption and rising incomes. Modern energy infrastructure has enabled large-scale economic
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