Fueling Progress Blog
Natural Gas Helps Eliminate Energy Poverty
Sami Alnuaim, Saudi Aramco
4 December 2019
The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that in 2018, the number of people on the planet who lack access to electricity fell below 1 billion for the first time ever. Think about that number – nearly 1 billion people who cannot flip a switch to be able to read after dark or heat food in a microwave oven. Many of those lacking electricity are in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 55% of people lack electricity. In 15 countries, 75% or more of the population are without electricity. Almost 9% of those in Asia also lack access to the benefits of electricity. Except for brief storm-related outages, most of us who have electricity have a hard time conceiving how difficult life would be without it.
IEA also estimates that 2.8 billion people lack access to modern cooking fuels, a number that has changed little since 2000. This means people are cooking their food with biomass, kerosene, and coal. Imagine the health effects, as well as safety and air quality impacts from these sources of cooking fuel.
In both cases—lack of electricity and lack of clean cooking fuels—natural gas is a key part of the solution to helping lift these people out of poverty and improve their way of life. Since 2000, IEA reports that 26% of the gains in access to electricity have come from natural gas. Natural gas, LPG, and natural gas liquids have the potential for replacing biomass and other sources of cooking fuel, with significant environmental and health benefits. China and Indonesia have had some success replacing traditional sources with natural gas, LPG, and electricity through incentives.
The oil and gas industry can help these billions of people who live in energy poverty. Sub-Saharan Africa has been the site of several sizeable natural gas discoveries in recent years. Several countries are evaluating liquefied natural gas (LNG) export opportunities for these developments. This, however, does not preclude use of natural gas for domestic needs. The challenge is infrastructure—building the power plants to generate electricity from natural gas and expansion of the grid to reach remote villages. This is an area where our companies can help, along with the investments by organizations such as the African Development Bank, the World Bank, and the OPEC Fund for International Development to expand the power grid.
For example, the gas turbines at the Nigeria LNG plant and a nearby oil export facility on Bonny Island are producing electricity that supplies a small power grid that distributes electricity to nearby businesses and homes, benefitting 90,000 people. The potential for cogeneration of electricity exists at many types of facilities operated by our industry around the globe. Several companies are using associated gas that would otherwise be flared to generate electricity. Distributing that power to nearby villages can create a significant benefit for those who currently lack access to electricity.
What our industry has sometimes viewed as “stranded gas” may in fact be in areas with the greatest need for power—especially in Asia, Africa, and parts of Latin America. A modest investment in using that gas for power generation can make use of a resource that currently has no market, yet make a huge difference in the lives of families who have been subsisting without electric power.
Energy poverty is a problem with a solution. It is not a quick or easy solution, but one where our industry is well positioned to help. Natural gas holds the potential to provide clean, affordable, reliable power to those without it. Finding and developing natural gas resources, coupled with the efforts of our industry and others to create the infrastructure to convert it to electricity and deliver it to homes, will have a major impact on improving people’s lives. What better feeling than putting a smile on the face of a needy child, providing power to a hospital or school in a remote village, or providing clean cooking fuel to families currently using basic biomass sources. Our job is not limited to discovering and selling oil and gas; we also improve people’s living conditions, support their economies and enhance their social opportunities. That is definitely something we can take pride in.
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The Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) is a global, individual membership professional society organized as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization in the US. SPE membership is not just petroleum engineers, but includes professionals of all backgrounds and education working in the upstream oil and gas industry.