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Stanford Natural Gas Initiative targets energy poverty

Symposium convenes 130 thought leaders from 12 countries to discuss solutions to energy poverty in developing economies.

By
Danielle Torrent Tucker
May 12, 2017
speakers onstage
Stanford geophysics professor Mark Zoback, director of the Stanford Natural Gas Initiative, moderates a discussion with Philip Mshelbila, general manager of gas and director of the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd. Their conversation, titled “Addressing the Ambition Gap,” detailed the challenges of alleviating energy poverty in Nigeria. Photo credit: Mark Shwartz

Are you carrying energy? Or is energy carrying you? Those questions represent the global divide between 1.3 billion people living without access to electricity and the rest of the world.

During a keynote at the 2017 Stanford Natural Gas Initiative (NGI) Research Symposium, Observer Research Foundation Vice President Samir Saran demonstrated his perspective on our relationships with energy through two photos: In an image of an African woman hauling wood for fuel, he sees a human carrying energy; conversely, in an image of a woman in the developed world driving a car, he sees energy carrying a human.

“Those with the least access to electricity are also those with the lowest life expectancy,” said Saran, whose foundation supports energy policy development in India.

About 130 participants from 12 countries discussed the complexities of alleviating energy poverty May 9-10 during the symposium titled, “Reducing Energy Poverty with Natural Gas: Changing Political, Business and Technology Paradigms.” It was the first international symposium that brought together representatives from industry, academia and government to share ideas about energy with a focus on the role of natural gas in helping to promote economic development and reduce energy poverty. The event was co-sponsored by the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) and the Precourt Institute for Energy.

“These are solvable problems, and our goal is to convene key thought leaders from around the world to discuss both opportunities and challenges,” said Stanford geophysics professor Mark Zoback, director of the Stanford Natural Gas Initiative (NGI). “This symposium is the start of a conversation among experts and stakeholders. It will be followed by future workshops and white papers with recommendations about how to go forward.”

Attendees included researchers and strategists from the U.S. Department of State, the World Bank, foundations and nonprofit organizations, as well as major oil and gas production and service companies. Together, they participated in a series of keynote lectures, plenary panel discussions, and focused breakout sessions to work through the technological, governmental and social barriers that limit energy access in developing regions.

Natural gas as a transition out of poverty

Natural gas is widely considered a transitional resource on the path to a decarbonized energy future and to complement renewables such as solar and wind in the effort to bring electricity access to impoverished regions. Rather than focusing solely on electrical power generation or specific business opportunities, discussions centered on how humanity can benefit from energy, with a concerted focus on the challenges of each region. 

“I think we are right in the midst of a revolution in the area of energy, much to the good fortune of the United States,” former Secretary of State George Shultz said during the opening keynote, noting that energy benefits the economy, environment, and national security in the U.S., as well as in other parts of the world.

Robin Dunnigan, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Diplomacy, Bureau of Energy Resources, U.S. State Department, echoed Shultz’s sentiment about the role of energy in national security. She spoke about the importance of government commitment and private sector participation.

“Thinking about this from the longer-term research perspective on the academic side, together with policy makers in industry, I think creates really useful conversation,” she said.

value chain diagram

Dunnigan noted the impact of a presentation from Philip Mshelbila of the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd., who offered a unique perspective as a Nigerian working in the natural gas sector. He painted a picture of some of the issues facing Nigeria, such as the shipment of expensive power plant equipment without a plan for delivering it across the country, through roads that need repair and across a river without a bridge.

“Access to energy for me is about improving people’s lives and is directly linked to affordability,” Mshelbila said. “Often, government prices energy at a level that is unsustainable – when you do that, you stifle investment.”

His diagram of the value supply chain in natural gas prompted many participants to take out their phones and photograph the visualization. “I thought that Philip’s one slide was worth me coming,” Dunnigan said. “It showed where things can go wrong along the value chain, how important policy decisions are, and how the wrong policy decision can have unintended consequences.”

Continuing the conversation

While participants said it was productive to have conversations across sectors, they did not always agree about how to approach the expansion of energy resources.

During a moderated panel, Saran deviated from Maaren Wetselaar, the Integrated Gas and New Energies Director of Royal Dutch Shell. Wetselaar pointed to the need for the big energy consumers, such as the U.S. and China, to lead by example when it comes to energy use and environmental protection.

Saran pointed out that oil and gas as a “white man’s game,” noting that those in extreme energy poverty, principally in India and Africa, had not benefited from these resources. The consensus of the symposium was that by focusing on the moral imperative of alleviating energy poverty, participants shared a compelling need to move the conversation forward.

Health: a related concern

CEO and Managing Director of the World LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) Association James Rockall described energy as a fundamental human right, noting that pollution and climate are related concerns.

“A key outcome for me is health,” said Rockall, whose organization represents the global liquefied petroleum gas, or propane, industry. Four million people per year die from indoor air pollution ­– more than from malaria, HIV and TB combined – yet the world spends 10 times as much money on the latter, he continued.

Rockall described an ongoing project to bring energy to tens of millions of households in rural India through distribution of propane canisters that may be purchased on an “as needed” basis. A single small canister of propane, such as might be used for a barbecue grill, can replace biomass (wood and dung) and provide clean cooking fuel for a household for one month. Saran emphasized that the tasks of collecting biofuel almost always fall to women. Switching to propane not only reduces indoor air pollution, it also frees up mothers by as much as 6 hours a day, which can then be devoted to tasks such as educating their children.

Other speakers noted how bringing energy to the poor reaches beyond bringing electricity and clean cooking fuel into peoples’ homes. Energy is needed to advance food production, for example.

“Should we be solving energy poverty or should we be solving poverty?” asked Catherine Wolfram, a professor of Business Administration at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. “You don’t eat energy – you need additional assets to be able to use that energy.”

The proceedings of the symposium will be summarized in a white paper by Usua Amanam, a Stanford Earth PhD student in Energy Resources Engineering. Plans are already underway to host a follow-up meeting in India later this year.

Symposium chair Tisha Schuller closed the meeting with a hopeful outlook about how the conversations will drive research forward.

“I just love this idea that we are working on this topic together and evoking each of our enlightened self-interests,” said Schuller, an energy consultant and strategic advisor to NGI. “We all have a shared common goal and we’re just getting started – stay tuned.”