Normative Narratives

Green News: Access to Energy, Poverty Reduction, and a Reason to be Optimistic About Renewable Energy Use in the Developing World

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The image shows projections for COemissions and global temperature changes based on different scenarios. Since we cannot know the future of environmental policies, technological advances, or economic growth, projections based on are the best way to hypothesize about these issues. One thing should become apparent after viewing these graphs–while the future is yet undetermined, failure to take action will have dire consequences.

Economic development is an essential component of poverty reduction in the worlds least developed countries (LDCs). However, economic development /poverty reduction are impossible without increased access to energy. Looking at the UN’s “My World 2015” survey, most of the 16 variables “for a better future” rely, to varying degrees, on energy access.

Original article:

In a speech on Monday in Warsaw, the United Nations’ top officer on climate change warned coal industry executives that much of the world’s coal will need to be left in the ground if international climate goals are to be met.

Godfrey G. Gomwe, chairman of the World Coal Association’s energy and climate committee, responded in a speech that, with “1.3 billion people in the world who live without access to electricity,” the questions of climate change and poverty reduction could not be separated.

“A life lived without access to modern energy is a life lived in poverty,” said Mr. Gomwe, who is also chief executive of the mining company Anglo American’s thermal coal business. “As much as some may wish it, coal is not going away.”

Todd Stern, the United States envoy on climate change, said at a news conference in Warsaw that the world’s reliance on coal is “not going to change overnight.” But, “high efficiency coal is certainly better than low efficiency coal,” he added, noting that carbon capture and storage technology was “the most important hope” for coal’s future.

Does this mean that the goals of (extreme) poverty reduction and environmental sustainability are incomparable? No, international efforts for poverty reduction have taken place in the context of “Sustainable Development“. While coal will not “go away”, the chief executive of a coal business is hardly an unbiased agent–he is likely to overstate coals importance in the global energy portfolio. In order to reconcile these two goals, LDCs must meet growing energy demands primarily with zero / low emissions renewable energy sources.

I, for one, am optimistic that LDCs will pursue sustainable development. This is not blind optimism, it is based on political and economic realities.

In the U.S., renewable energy industries face the impediment of strong, established “traditional” energy industries (such as coal power). These industries have billion dollar profit margins and employ large numbers of people. Furthermore, infrastructure or “energy grids” already exist which may not be able to distribute renewable energy, representing large “sunk costs” to switching to renewable energy. In sum, these factors lead to strong local level support and national lobbying efforts for traditional electric. The benefits of renewable energy are realized in the future, while the costs (higher energy prices) and resistance from special interests occur in the present.

In LDCs, where many people are “off the grid”, these “incumbency” obstacles do not exist. In LDCs, people rely primarily on the agrarian economy, and are therefore more likely to support environmentally sustainable energy sources. Furthermore, “off-the-grid-renewable energy” represents a way of bypassing the large fixed costs associated with building traditional energy grids–something that is extremely important in the context of the world’s poorest countries:

Sub-Saharan Africa is also seen as a promising context for renewables. An analogy with the region’s adoption of mobile phones suggests sub-Saharan Africa could dispense with polluting, grid-connected power plants – just as it skipped landline telephones — and move straight into distributed generation from renewables.

Yet a note of caution enters any forecast for any region that so consistently outwits the sharpest analysts. Bhattacharyya tallies up several points for optimism but, while sharing Cohen’s enthusiasm, expresses doubt about the scale of development.

‘The market-driven approach’ has started to ‘flourish’ in areas such as Kenya, he says. He also sees grounds for optimism in how global attention on the lack of access to clean energies by agencies such as the UN, IEA and World Bank has also raised local recognition and awareness of the issue.

In ‘an optimistic case’ he forecasts that sub-Saharan Africa could add a few gigawatts through off-grid technologies, bringing electricity to millions of its people.

‘There is surely huge potential for off-grid options but it is difficult to tell how much is really likely to materialise,’ he says.

The issue with financing renewable energy projects was supposed to be addressed by the UN Green Climate Fund; developed countries promised $100 billion a year to the developed world by 2020 to help cope with and reverse climate change. Issues over “common but differentiated responsibilities“, as well as austerity measures in response to the Great recession, call the availability of these resources into question.

One potential means of making up this funding gap is through a so-called “feed in tariff“:

The report by the World Future Council says providing feed-in tariffs for developing countries so that they can finance setting up large-scale renewable systems and feed electricity to their grids is the best way forward for the fund.

Feed-in tariffs provide the owners of small or large-scale wind and solar arrays with a guaranteed price for electricity over 20 years, so the investor is certain to get a return on their capital. The scheme has worked in developed countries like Germany and Italy to rapidly boost renewable output.

An added problem in developing countries is making sure that the national or local grid can take up and use the electricity generated. Some developed countries have already had difficulties with this, so sorting out the grid must be part of any financing package, the report says.

The report envisages 100 gigawatts of electricity being funded in this way by 2020 – the equivalent of the output of 100 large-scale coal-fired power plants. This would cost 1.3 billion euros a year to fund, sustained over two decades. 

Feed-in tariffs require energy grids to feed-into, and for that reason are not a viable option for the most impoverished / remote areas in the world which do not currently have traditional energy grids. For areas in the developing countries with traditional grids, this is a viable solution. For other areas, financing for off-the-grid renewable energy must be made available. The ability to reconcile economic development, environmental sustainability, and poverty reduction–sustainable development–depends on it.

Update: Alternatively, perhaps off the grid renewable energy can be stored in batteries and sold as part of a feed-in tariff. I know advances are being made in large scale renewable storage in large batteries, I wonder if there is a way to make this work on a small scale as well. Just a though…

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3 thoughts on “Green News: Access to Energy, Poverty Reduction, and a Reason to be Optimistic About Renewable Energy Use in the Developing World

  1. Pingback: Green News: The Science, Technology, Economics And Geopolitics Of Climate Change Align | Normative Narratives

  2. Pingback: Green News: The Roles of Rich and Poor Countries in Combating Climate Change | Normative Narratives

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