27/06/2016 5:59 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST

Coal Won't Solve Energy Poverty, Renewables Will

The reliance of much of the developing world on renewable, local sources of electricity generation counters the narrative that coal is the only option for developing countries to achieve a Western standard of living.

Thomas Mukoya / Reuters
Kenya generates 75 percent of its total electricity production from renewables.

Last month, a remarkable story emerged out of Kenya. Not one of violence or unrest that the world is becoming used to, but a lighter one: the national power grid was disrupted by a solitary monkey.

The unfortunate primate's precarious exploration of Kenya's most important electrical source -- a hydro power plant operated by the Kenya Electricity Generating Company -- resulted in it falling onto a transformer, short circuiting the nation's power grid, and causing widespread blackouts and disruption in the process.

While the episode exposed the vulnerabilities of Kenya's national power gird, it also highlighted a growing trend among developing countries to rely heavily on renewable energy to meet domestic and regional demand.

Kenya -- generating 75 percent of its total electricity production from renewables -- ranks 16th in the world on this measure, below a diverse set of countries that include many the world's poorest, according to the World Bank data on renewable energy generation.

The data shows that Paraguay and Iceland lead the world in their reliance on renewable energy, with effectively 100 percent of their electricity generated through hydro and geothermal power. Albania is equal top, only producing electricity from renewable sources, although it is still somewhat reliant on imported, non-renewable energy sources to meet demand.

The next three countries on the list might also surprise: Mozambique, Zambia and Tajikistan come in at four, five and six in their generation on renewable energy for their electricity needs.

These countries are financially destitute with enormous challenges associated with their developing status.

Tajikistan is the 'sick man' of Central Asia -- close to 50 percent of its GDP is generated from Tajik expats sending remittances home from Russia, with much of the rest coming from the nefarious Afghan opioid trade. But it relies on hydro-power for up to 96 percent of its energy needs.

Mozambique and Zambia are hardly known for their prosperous economies or progressive politics. Their reliance on renewable sources of energy -- again, primarily hydro -- is a pragmatic and cost effective choice -- a choice that is being replicated throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

For these countries, renewable energy is not a luxury. It is a necessity.

A closer examination of the World Bank data also demonstrates that across the various sub-categories of countries, it is generally the developed, wealthier West that is lagging behind in its embrace of renewables.

'High income' and 'High Income: OECD' countries rely on renewable sources of energy for 19.4 and 20.2 percent of their electricity generation. This is close to the global average of approximately 21 percent.

'Heavily indebted poor countries' and 'least developed countries', in contrast, utilise renewable sources for 60.3 and 40.8 percent of their power generation.

Australia sits near the bottom of the list, with only 10 percent of electricity consumption being sourced from renewables -- 11 percent below the world average.

The data comprehensively refutes two core arguments that are repeatedly put forward by the fossil fuel lobby for a generation: that Australia should not lead in the global climate change debate, and that coal is the key to solving global energy poverty.

A forward-leaning clean energy policy in Australia would not be world leading. It is vital, but in many respects, it would just be Australia keeping pace.

And the reliance of much of the developing world on renewable, local sources of electricity generation counters the narrative that coal is the only option for developing countries to achieve a Western standard of living.

Certainly, coal will continue to be a part of the energy mix into the future. China and India -- the two largest developing countries and consumers of energy -- still rely on it heavily.

But the Chinese and Indian experiences are not the experience of the entire developing world. It is easy to look at the world's poorest states through a single lens, but this is lazy and doesn't factor in their diversity of needs and resources.

In many cases, changing the energy mix in developing countries to be more reliant on fossil fuels would be an expensive, timely process that would do nothing to solve the 'energy poverty' in the developing world that is so derided by the pseudo-altruistic fossil fuel lobby.

Energy poverty won't be solved by applying an antiquated, one-size-fits-all approach to the world's poorest countries. Rather, it requires the pragmatic use of local and sustainable energy sources to meet immediate and long-term demand, while fostering sustainable growth.

The international energy debate needs more nuance. It is not black and white, and each region requires its own approach. Often, it is simply more practical and more affordable to double down on existing renewable sources rather than increase reliance on a dwindling resource.

Australia has a lot of catching up to do.