How Much Energy Do We Need?


Masai warrior with cell phone.

A previous post Adapting Plants to Feed the World explored how much food will be needed for a future population if 3 billion additional middle-class appetites are added? This post discusses the issues regarding the obvious link between energy and poverty. Someone said, observing world life styles: “Where energy is scarce and expensive, people’s labor is cheap and they live in poverty. Where energy is cheap and reliable, people are well paid for their labor and have a higher standard of living.”

So the question of how much energy is important, particularly with the present huge disparity in energy access. Here are excerpts with my bolds from an article by Kris De Decker in Low-Tech Magazine How Much Energy Do We Need?

I appreciate the presentation of the issues, while disagreeing with some of the premises. For example, he assumes that societies using fossil fuels despoil their environments, when the facts contradict that notion. Not only are people more prosperous and live longer by using fossil fuels, they also enjoy cleaner air and sanitary drinking water. The author mistakenly conflates belief in global warming/climate change with environmental stewardship.

The article provides this graph illustrating the situation of energy disparity:
De Decker:  If we divide total primary energy use per country by population, we see that the average North American uses more than twice the energy of the average European (6,881 kgoe versus 3,207 kgoe, meaning kg of oil equivalent). Within Europe, the average Norwegian (5,818 kgoe) uses almost three times more energy than the average Greek (2,182 kgoe). The latter uses three to five times more energy than the average Angolan (545 kgoe), Cambodian (417 kgoe) or Nicaraguan (609 kgoe), who uses two to three times the energy of the average Bangladeshi (222 kgoe). [

These figures include not only the energy used directly in households, but also energy used in transportation, manufacturing, power production and other sectors. Such a calculation makes more sense than looking at household energy consumption alone, because people consume much more energy outside their homes, for example through the products that they buy.

Inequality not only concerns the quantity of energy, but also its quality. People in industrialised countries have access to a reliable, clean and (seemingly) endless supply of electricity and gas. On the other hand, two in every five people worldwide (3 billion people) rely on wood, charcoal or animal waste to cook their food, and 1.5 billion of them don’t have electric lighting. [6] These fuels cause indoor air pollution, and can be time- and labour-intensive to obtain. If modern fuels are available in these countries, they’re often expensive and/or less reliable.

As a Canadian I am not surprised that Norwegians use more energy than Greeks, considering winters in the two places. But I agree that standards of living are much higher on the left side compared to the right side, and energy access is a large part of the reason, though not the only one (governance?, free enterprise? rule of law?, work ethic? Etc.)

Aside: Henry Kissinger once observed: “If a country is not already a democracy when they discover oil, they stand little chance of becoming one.”

I don’t share the author’s fear of climate change which does permeate his discussion of the issues in raising up impoverished populations.

De Dekker goes on: However, while it’s recognised that part of the global population is using not enough energy, there is not the same discussion of people who are using too much energy. Nevertheless, solving the tension between demand reduction and energy poverty can only happen if those who use ‘too much’ reduce their energy use. Bringing the rest of the world up to the living standards and energy use of rich countries – the implicit aim of ‘human development’ – would solve the problem of inequality, but it’s not compatible with the environmental problems we face.

Between the upper boundary set by the carrying capacity of the planet, and a lower boundary set by decent levels of wellbeing for all lies a band of sustainable energy use, situated somewhere between energy poverty and energy decadence. [14] These boundaries not only imply that the rich lower their energy use, but also that the poor don’t increase their energy use too much. However, there is no guarantee that the maximum levels are in fact higher than the minimum levels.

To make matters worse, defining minimum and maximum levels is fraught with difficulty. On the one hand, when calculating from the top down, there’s no agreement about the carrying capacity of the planet, whether it concerns a safe concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, the remaining fossil fuel reserves, the measurements of ecological damage, or the impact of renewable energy, advances in energy efficiency, and population growth. On the other hand, for those taking a bottom-up approach, defining what constitutes a ‘decent’ life is just as debatable.

Needs and Wants

However, although distributing energy use equally across the global population may sound fair, in fact the opposite is true. The amount of energy that people ‘need’ is not only up to them. It also depends on the climate (people living in cold climates will require more energy for heating than those living in warm climates), the culture (the use of air conditioning in the US versus the siesta in Southern Europe), and the infrastructure (cities that lack public transport and cycling facilities force people into cars).

Differences in energy efficiency can also have a significant impact on the “need” for energy. For example, a traditional three-stone cooking fire is less energy efficient than a modern gas cooking stove, meaning that the use of the latter requires less energy to cook a similar meal. It’s not only the appliances that determine how much energy is needed, but also the infrastructure: if electricity production and transmission have relatively poor efficiency, people need more primary energy, even if they use the same amount of electricity at home.

To account for all these differences, most researchers approach the diagnosis of energy poverty by focusing on ‘energy services’, not on a particular level of energy use. [17] People do not demand energy or fuel per se – what they need are the services that energy provides. For example, when it comes to lighting, people do not need a particular amount of energy but an adequate level of light depending on what they are doing.

Some energy poverty indicators go one step further still. They don’t specify energy services, but basic human needs or capabilities (depending on the theory). In these modes, basic needs or capabilities are considered to be universal, but the means to achieve them are considered geographically and culturally specific. The focus of these needs-based indicators is on measuring the conditions of human well-being, rather than on specifying the requirements for achieving these outcomes. Examples of human basic needs are clean water and nutrition, shelter, thermal comfort, a non-threatening environment, significant relationships, education and healthcare.

Basic needs are considered to be universal, objective, non-substitutable (for example, insufficient food intake cannot be solved by increasing dwelling space, or the other way around), cross-generational (the basic needs of future generations of humans will be the same as those of present generations), and satiable (the contribution of water, calories, or dwelling space to basic needs can be satiated). This means that thresholds can be conceived where serious harm is avoided. ‘Needs’ can be distinguished from ‘wants’, which are subjective, evolving over time, individual, substitutable and insatiable. Focusing on basic needs in this way makes it possible to distinguish between ‘necessities’ and ‘luxuries’, and to argue that human needs, present and future, trump present and future ‘wants’.

Politically Correct Off-grid Electricity.

Focusing on energy services or basic needs can help to specify maximum levels of energy use. Instead of defining minimum energy service levels (such as 300 lumens of light per household), we could define maximum energy services levels (say 2,000 lumens of light per household). These energy service levels could then be combined to calculate maximum energy use levels per capita or household. However, these would be valid only in specific geographical and cultural contexts, such as countries, cities, or neighbourhoods – and not universally applicable. Likewise, we could define basic needs and then calculate the energy that is required to meet them in a specific context.

However, the focus on energy services or basic needs also reveals a fundamental problem. If the goods and services necessary for a decent life free from poverty are seen not as universally applicable, but as relative to the prevailing standards and customs of a particular society, it becomes clear that such standards evolve over time as technology and customary ways of life change. [11] Change over time, especially since the twentieth century, reveals an escalation in conventions and standards that result in increasing energy consumption. The ‘need satisfiers’ have become more and more energy-intensive, which has made meeting basic needs as problematic as fulfilling ‘wants’.


The author goes on to discuss energy demand reductions from efficiencies and substitutions, but cannot get around his fundamental dilemma: Needs are universal, objective, non-substitutable, cross-generational, and satiable. Wants are subjective, evolving over time, individual, substitutable and insatiable.

Some of the text reminded me of soviet era Romania. At Ceaușescu’s initiative in 1981, a “Rational Eating Programme” began, being a “scientific plan” for limiting the calorie intake for the Romanians, claiming that the Romanians were eating too much. It tried to reduce the calorie intake by 9-15 percent to 2,800-3,000 calories per day. In December 1983, a new dietary programme for 1984 set even lower allowances. That “austerity program” destroyed the economy, bringing down the ruler and regime.

In Biblical days they were wiser: “Do not muzzle an ox when he is treading out the grain.” Deuteronomy 25:4

People and their societies are dynamic, not static, as Matthew Kahn keeps reminding us. When their labor is enhanced with energy from fossil fuels, people are healthier, more productive and inventive in seeking, finding and using natural resources. Club of Rome’s notion of limits to growth failed to understand human resources, and today’s followers are equally blind.

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