AFTER years of hype, renewable energy has gone mainstream in much of the United States and, increasingly, around the world.
But many communities that need small-scale renewable energy remain out in the cold — literally and figuratively.
In Alaska, for instance, the vast majority of the more than 200 small, isolated communities populated primarily by native Alaskans rely on dirty, expensive diesel fuel to generate their electricity and heat. As in other remote communities throughout the world that have no grid to fall back on, diesel generators now provide the only reliable option for these desperately poor towns to meet their essential energy needs.
These villages buy and burn several hundred thousand gallons of diesel fuel per year in inefficient generators at costs that can approach $10 per gallon while spewing unhealthy fumes and soot. To ease their diesel dependence, some Alaskan villages have been able to secure financing to construct wind projects and small-scale, centralized electricity systems, known as micro grids.
The Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has been working with the Department of the Interior and industry on the Remote Community Renewable Energy Partnership to make this happen. Drawing from the Department of Defense’s successful deployment of small renewable energy-based systems to support forward-stationed troops, the lab is developing design specifications for a modular renewable energy system that aims to produce much cleaner energy, at half of today’s costs. This would be accomplished by replacing 75 percent of diesel use for electricity and heat in the Arctic villages (relying primarily on wind power) and for electricity and cooling in the tropics (relying primarily on solar power).
On a parallel track, Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz recently announced a public-private collaboration called Beyond the Grid to leverage $1 billion in investments over five years to bring small-scale solutions to communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Both initiatives address the huge, debilitating energy deficit faced by millions around the world.
The economic and quality-of-life benefits that flow when cash-strapped communities have access to affordable and healthier clean energy are transformative. Just as the public-private partnership that developed and deployed cleaner-burning, efficient cook stoves has changed the lives of millions in Africa and Asia for the better, so also will these renewable energy systems.
Let’s not leave these ideas on the drawing board. The United States will take its turn next April as the chair of the eight-nation Arctic Council, a forum of the nations that border the Arctic. In setting the council’s agenda, the United States can make it a priority to bring practical and clean energy options to isolated northern communities.
Such an effort would put a humanitarian face on the country’s commitment to address climate change. We would directly help our most energy-needy citizens, while opening up a new global market for American businesses and showing the world what innovative clean energy technology can do for the human condition, and our planet.
“Microgrids” fit into a larger context-sensitive approach to sustainable development.
For larger urban areas, traditional power grids make the most sense. In places with smaller populations, Microgrids could provide cleaner energy at a lower cost than burning diesel fuel. In less developed countries, where weak financial institutions and security concerns make even microgrids unattainable, individualized mobile power generating units may make the most sense.
On a global scale, reaching climate change targets (particularly the UNFCCC’s target of limiting warming to 2 °C over preindustrial levels) will take global coordination. China’s recent energy plan has drawn criticism from environmental groups, who believe it will worsen climate change.
One way to counter the inability of governments to agree on a global climate change framework is to make low / zero emission energy sources competitive in open markets. On one side, countries must stop providing incentives to consume “traditional” high emission energy sources. On the other hand, we must continue to subsidize R & D and creative financing (such as feed-in tariffs, which enable people / companies to pay for renewable energy infrastructure by selling back excess energy to the grid) to promote green energy use, particularly in developing countries.
There are both moral (protecting the interests of the voiceless–the world’s most vulnerable groups and future generations) and economic (becoming a leader in a growth industry, and the associated job creation) reasons to be excited about renewable green energy.
Tackling two of the greatest global challenges of the 21st century; ending extreme poverty and promoting environmental sustainability; are not irreconcilable, but they are also far from inevitable. It requires, as President Obama has called it, an “all of the above” approach. Microgrids seem poised to play an important role in this approach.
The absence of a global climate change framework is no reason to eschew environmental protection. Every kilowatt of energy produced without GHG emissions is a step in the right direction; let’s not allow perfection to be the enemy of progress.