Can I turn on the lights?


In Mongolia a lot about your electricity and heat depend on where you live, whether your home is connected to the main electrical grid, and whether you live near a power station. In the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, and in smaller cities and towns throughout the country electricity probably works a lot like it does for people in cities and towns in many countries throughout the world. Flip and switch, and your lights go on. 

To give you an idea of how much your location matters, in the United States, 27% of the electricity comes from thermal power plants that burn coal and transform it into electricity. In Australia 63% comes from this type of power plant, while in Brazil only 2% of the electricity comes from coal.  In Mongolia 90% of the electricity comes from coal. Why does this matter?


Coal is what is called a fossil fuel: a fuel that is made up of ancient plants that were compressed over millions of years. Once we use it up, it is gone forever. Plus, when we use it, it sends CO2 (carbon dioxide) into our atmosphere, the blanket of gases that surround the earth. COis a “greenhouse gas.” It allows sunlight to reach our planet, but prevents heat from leaving, causing a wide range of changes in the earth’s climate. 

To use electricity from a coal-fired power plant, you need to have electrical wires coming to your building. That’s not too hard if you live near a lot of other people: then you are wired into the “electrical grid” of your country. That means that the network of wires that has been created over time comes close to where your building.

If you live far away from other people, that network of electrical wires probably doesn’t come near your building. You can’t connect to it, so you can’t get your electricity from a central source. No power from the big coal-fired power plant for you!

In the case of Mongolia, there is a big political problem. Right now Mongolia can’t supply all of its own energy needs, so they are dependent on Russia for electricity during winter, when they need more electricity than during other seasons so that people have heat. Take another look at the map of Mongolia. You can probably imagine that it is no fun to have a very large, very strong neighbor who could threaten to turn off your heat during winters when the temperature may drop to -40° centigrade (-40° fahrenheit). Mongolia needs to figure out how to lower the amount of coal that they are using, how to make cleaner coal more affordable, and how to increase the amount of electrical power they can produce in their own country. It is expensive to build new coal-fired power plants, and they produce a lot of pollution and greenhouse gases.

So, where else might electricity come from?