Renewable Energy Sources for Development

By Ottinger, Richard L.; Williams, Rebecca | Environmental Law, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview
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Renewable Energy Sources for Development

Ottinger, Richard L., Williams, Rebecca, Environmental Law


Virtually every expert who has addressed the energy aspects of sustainable development has concluded that renewable resources should play a major role. Yet, while the use of these resources is growing rapidly in both developed and developing countries, use has not reached anywhere near the technical and economic potential that worldwide studies have attributed to them. (1)

A host of economic, social, and legal barriers account for the failure of renewable resources to reach their potential. Those barriers can be overcome, as in a number of jurisdictions, including India and other developing countries. Legislation can remove these barriers, get the price signals right, and encourage successful use of renewable resources. This Article explores mechanisms that can be used and that have been used successfully in developing countries in various parts of the world to remove those barriers and to promote greater use of renewable resources.


Renewable resources vary widely in technical and economic characteristics. Some renewable resources, such as wind, geothermal, modern biomass, and small hydroelectric energy, are in fairly wide use throughout the world, are often economical, and offer significant environmental advantages. Those renewable resources are applicable for either grid use or for stand-alone energy in rural communities. Other renewable resources, such as photovoltaics, remain too expensive for many electric grid applications, but are well suited for grid niche applications, such as for switching equipment upgrades. For poor and remote communities not yet served by electricity, the above-mentioned renewable resources are highly economical, particularly to provide power for lighting, refrigeration, irrigation, and communications. (2) In addition, modern biomass applications are particularly advantageous for developing countries because they use local feedstocks and labor. (3) Other renewable resources with tremendous technical and economic potential such as hydrogen fuel cells, wave and tidal energy, and deep hot rock geothermal energy, require additional research and development to be economically or technically feasible. (4)

Nuclear energy is excluded from this analysis as a development option because of its high capital and operating costs, complex technical requirements for operation and maintenance, and unresolved problems of proliferation and waste disposal. After the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, an overriding concern with nuclear plants is their great vulnerability to terrorist attack (particularly on the control rooms and spent fuel pools that are located outside the containment vessels). At any rate, nuclear energy is not renewable unless reprocessing of spent fuel is used; and this process is even more prohibitively expensive and technologically challenging for developing countries. Further, reprocessing poses difficulties for all countries because its plutonium production is particularly vulnerable to proliferation.

In addition, nuclear energy is derived from plutonium or uranium processed with high energy into forms capable of utilization in reactors. If fossil fuels are used as the energy source to refine the uranium (currently the usual process) then nuclear energy has much of the same carbon dioxide and pollution problems as direct fossil fuel combustion. (5) Nuclear power waste disposal and plant decommissioning also involve substantial unsolved environmental problems and costs. Finally, there are safety problems with nuclear power plant operations, and risks of diversion of nuclear fuel to weapons production. Because nuclear power requires safety and high capital costs for construction, waste disposal and decommissioning, nuclear power is not an economical energy option today in the United States; no new U.S. plants have been constructed for more than twenty-three years.

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