Renewable Energy: Empowering the Developing World. (Spheres of Influence)

By Clay, Rebecca | Environmental Health Perspectives, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Renewable Energy: Empowering the Developing World. (Spheres of Influence)


Clay, Rebecca, Environmental Health Perspectives


The total capacity of installed electrical power in the world is currently 3.4 million megawatts (MW). Of that, 1.5 million MW is in developing countries. About 30% of the global population--an estimated 2 billion people--currently lives without electricity. Most inhabit either remote rural areas of developing countries outside electrical power grids or urban areas with inadequate utility systems.

As these countries develop and grow, their need for energy will rise. The International Energy Agency predicts that developing countries will need to double their grid-based electrical power production by 2020--adding more than 1 million MW--to fuel continued economic growth. How will that mounting demand be met? For starters, applications such as energy for lighting, telecommunications, irrigation and other agricultural needs, cottage industries, heating water, and cooking are ideally suited to renewable energy.

"Governments and the development community are increasingly looking at renewable energy as the best way to supply distant communities with reliable power," says Eric Martinot, global climate change manager of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a joint project of the World Bank, the United Nations Environment Programme, and the United Nations Development Programme. "Renewable energy can be used on its own or as a supplementary power source in developing countries," he says. "It can provide clean energy that protects the local environment and reduces greenhouse gas emissions [while reducing] dependence on foreign sources of energy."

The road to renewable energy in developing countries, however, is often blocked by obstacles, including high start-up costs, insufficient human and institutional infrastructure, relatively weak incentives, and inconsistent energy policies. Developing communities tend to rely on nonrenewable energy sources such as oil, gas, and firewood, as well as sources with high environmental impacts such as major hydroelectrical installations. But experts argue that developing countries could ultimately benefit by meeting their energy needs with renewable photovoltaic power, small hydroelectrical technology, and biomass.

"Renewable energy technology is an advanced technology--whether it's high-tech or low-tech--which most developing countries are trying to use for everyday activities like cooking food, drying crops, and heating their homes," says Ali Sayigh, director general of the World Renewable Energy Network (WREN). "But a lot has to be done to transfer that technology to the communities that need it and to provide the advice needed to make it work."

Barriers to Progress

Until recently, the 87 homes on the tiny Chilean island of Tac had no electricity. But they did have a lot of wind, wind that blows over the Gulf of Ancud with significant force. As part of the Chilean government's efforts to electrify the entire country and to reach those communities outside of its electrical power grid, a pilot system that tapped into the island's wind power was installed on Tac. For the first time, the island's residents had refrigeration, television, and telephones, and the schools had electric lights. Soon after, a few stores opened up, and carpenters began using electric tools.

"Everybody on the island loves it," says Ian Baring-Gould, a senior mechanical engineer with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. The NREL provided the data on wind resources that were critical to the design of Tac's power system. "The system uses a combination of wind and diesel to provide power to the whole island," he says. "The diesel is used to power the system at times when the wind power diminishes."

A principal barrier in this case was technological know-how--in order to build the right power system for that particular community, the designers needed to assess the precise natural resources; that is, they had to determine exactly how hard the wind blew and in what direction. …

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