In 2010, for the first time ever, countries that did not industrialize first have invested more money in renewable energy than those countries that were first to industrialize, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Yet within many middle-to-low income countries, large portions of the population continue to have limited or no access to electricity and other energy services. In some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, such as Uganda and Malawi, as much as 90 percent of the population is without electricity. And while there is no single standard for how energy development should take place, addressing the needs of populations with minimal or no access to energy and related services is a critical part of sustainable development. Fortunately, many regions and communities are implementing decentralized and distributed approaches to renewable energy in sustainable ways, including through locally self-determined initiatives and by engaging in international collaboration.

Wind power can be tied to large centralized grid systems or to municipal micro-grids (Source: Reuters)


Decentralized renewable energy

Still today, the bulk of energy financing goes to centralized, grid-connected power plants. In 2010, for example, an estimated $40–45 billion was invested in large-scale hydropower, compared to only $2 billion for small hydropower projects. One reason for this disproportionate focus is that international efforts and funds typically emphasize policy change at the national level and through capital-intensive, industrial markets. But while implementing change at these levels is important and necessary, it is not the only way.

Indeed, numerous studies and examples indicate that policies oriented solely toward centralized production and distribution of electricity are inadequate to meet the needs of marginalized people and communities. In contrast, renewable energy technologies provide the opportunity for a development path that is more culturally self-determined, giving individuals and communities control over their own energy sources. Distributed renewable energy technologies constitute an important, community-driven alternative to centralized projects that are often driven by national politics and that can be largely removed from community interests.

“Poverty alleviation” means more than raising incomes

The social and cultural well-being of populations in relative poverty is a primary concern of sustainable development, but narrow interpretations of what is meant by “poverty” have held back sustainable development, both in the energy arena and elsewhere. Oversimplified and static definitions of “poverty,” “developing” countries, and even “development” itself have contributed to problematic assumptions that societies or cultures are fixed instead of dynamic or changing, and that goals for progress are singular across all cultures. The question of what defines “poverty” matters acutely to sustainable energy development, because those who are considered poor are generally the same people who lack access to modern energy services.

According to the World Bank, an estimated 1.3 billion people currently live on less than $1.25 a day. But statistical measurements of poverty that are based on income level, such as this, do not adequately define the range of social factors which are part of what is meant by poverty. Definitions of poverty must consider broader social causes and outcomes, such as the lack of cultural and political participation, lack of gender rights, lack of opportunities such as literacy and education. All such causes are in fact what lead to the physical conditions of poverty that are commonly delineated, such as difficult living conditions, undernourishment and hunger, lack of physical health.

As a result, “poverty alleviation” cannot simply mean boosting incomes and should not be sought through any single standard of (globalized) economic development. Rather, it should be pursued through efforts to ensure the prosperity of locally self-determined cultural systems. And one significant way that this can happen in the energy arena is through the implementation of distributed renewable energy technologies.

An Indian woman holds a solar panel on a roof in Orissa

The development spectrum

As the example of poverty alleviation illustrates, the tendency of the metrics-driven approach to development is to oversimplify, and to suggest that development happens on a linear spectrum, taking societies from underdeveloped (or poor) to developed. But an alternative and more socially comprehensive approach would be, rather than seeking to “develop” the “poor” in low-income countries, to instead ask: “How can development take place in participatory and locally self-determined ways to allow for the thriving of critical social and cultural activities?”

The deployment of renewable energy technologies, by necessity, requires both self-determination and international participation, because the critical technologies and know-how come primarily from technologically complex countries. Germany, China, and the United States lead in producing the solar and wind technologies that can be of great benefit to low-income communities in Africa or South Asia. Introducing these technologies through “technology transfer,” “capacity building,” or “implementation aid” is best accomplished in ways that are both participatory and context-specific (i.e., locally self-determined). In other words, there is no universal formula for how distributed renewable energy should be deployed.

This participatory approach to harnessing clean energy sources is precisely what the Worldwatch Institute seeks to do through its “sustainable energy roadmap” model. The roadmap approach is country-specific and aims to work with policymakers not just at the national level, but also at the provincial, municipal, and community levels. Worldwatch aims to engage with a wide diversity of stakeholders, including financial and industry players, project developers from both large and small companies, and the local communities that ultimately use the energy being generated.

Energy cooperatives

The idea of engaging stakeholders at varying levels in sustainable energy development is not new. Costa Rica, for example, is home to both a state-owned energy utility (the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity) as well as four rural energy cooperatives that produce and distribute power in response to demand from rural areas. These cooperatives are effective because they are able to apply local funds directly toward either isolated grid systems or extensions of the national grid.

Costa Rica’s energy cooperatives are able to survive without subsidies, regulations, or other forms of government support. Because the cooperatives are owned and operated by the energy users, community members themselves have a say in coop affairs. The cooperatives hold periodic public meetings at which leadership decisions are made as well as decisions about electricity pricing. With high community involvement and consequently high cost recovery for energy investments, cooperatives can be a solution to common energy challenges such as ineffective regulation and electricity theft through illegal connections to the grid.

Initiated in the mid-to-late 1960s, the Costa Rican rural cooperative program was funded jointly by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Bank of Costa Rica, at a cost of more than $4 million. Each of the four cooperatives was initially set up in an area not serviced by the state utility. The cooperatives constructed a network of mini-grids, and although the energy is currently produced by diesel-fired thermal generators, these small grid systems could be ideal sites for secure investment in renewable energy.

The cooperatives have been in operation for more than 30 years and provide a best-practice example for what other rural communities in Central America can do to expand access to modern energy services. Costa Rica has achieved 98 percent access to electricity nationally, but other countries such as Nicaragua (with only 60 percent access, one of the lowest rates in the region) could benefit immensely from implementing similar programs.

Off-grid and other renewable energy technologies

Many other off-grid and renewable energy technologies are important to the energy-access equation as well. These include improved or more-efficient cook stoves, solar thermal or solar photovoltaic heating and cooling, biofuels and other transportation fuels, wind and solar pumps for irrigation or drinking water, solar hot water or space heating, run-of-river hydropower for mechanical energy, and biomass gasification. Distributed off-grid renewables such as these are being taken up in places where the centralized national grid has either not reached or in communities where people are at the margins of energy-access.

Decentralized and small-scale renewable energy technologies also serve as critical alternatives to traditional biomass energy—the burning of wood, charcoal and other materials. Their usage can help to reduce deforestation and its environmental effects, as well as the detrimental health effects of smoke inhalation from cooking and heating within confined spaces. Such indoor air pollution is a major factor in nearly 2 million deaths each year, of which an estimated 60 percent are women.

Sustainable energy for all

As decentralized and distributed renewable sources are implemented in ways that are progressively more self-determined and internationally collaborative, the obstacles to sustainable energy development are being addressed increasingly within the local context. Numerous events within countries are helping to raise awareness of renewable energy technologies, and an increase in the number of local vendors is minimizing problems with technology availability. In many regions, local capacity for using and operating renewable energy systems is growing, and microcredit options offer viable local financing solutions. There is also more policy attention than ever—at both the national and municipal levels—for distributed energy solutions.

The United Nations has designated 2012 as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (like Worldwatch) has prioritized the importance of integrating the energy issue with other social challenges. Although many international goals—such as universal access to energy services, reductions in energy intensity, and high shares of renewables in the energy mix—remain lofty, the growing attention to the issue indicates that representatives from almost all UN nations have chosen to highlight sustainable energy access as one of the most pressing human needs of today.

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