In the coming years, Latin American countries will have to make major investments in electricity generation and grid infrastructure in order to meet growing energy demand and provide universal energy access. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, power generation in Latin America and the Caribbean will have to double by 2030, requiring an investment larger than $700 billion. Over 31 million people in the region lack access to electricity and many countries still depend on fossil fuels for power generation, causing economic vulnerability due to volatile prices. Hydroelectric power is the other main source of electricity for many Latin American countries, but recent changes in precipitation patterns signal an uncertain future for this traditionally reliable baseload energy source in the face of climate change.

Creating integrated regional power systems by connecting national electricity grids can alleviate some of these challenges facing Latin America, especially for those countries seeking to provide affordable and reliable electricity to their citizens while constrained by limited natural resources, poor infrastructure, and low investment levels. By pursuing regional integration, countries benefit from economies of scale, complementary energy resources, lower costs of energy infrastructure development, and stronger regional cooperation. A regionally integrated power system can provide energy security at lower costs by increasing power generator and utility access to markets and diversifying the mix of energy sources. Furthermore, it facilitates the penetration of renewable energy by creating a market for financing large-scale projects and by providing increased grid stability necessary for high levels of intermittent energy sources like solar and wind.

Latin America could benefit greatly from regional power systems integration (source: commons.wikimedia.org)

In April 2012, at the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, the Connect 2022 initiative was introduced. Its aim is to ensure universal access to electricity to people in the Americas by 2022. This past June, in support of the Connect 2022 initiative, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the U.S. Department of State hosted a dialogue in which commitments for energy integration in Latin America were strengthened.

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Central America, Connect 2022, developing countries, electricity, energy policy, grid integration, IDB, Latin America, Proyecto Mesoamerica, regional electricity integration, renewable energy, SIEPAC, SINEA

Starting and running a solar lamp retail business in a developing country like Kenya is no small feat. Kenya lacks strong transportation infrastructure for product distribution, and the bureaucratic red tape is not only tedious but can be opaque to foreigners. Meanwhile, the customers who need and want solar portable lamps most are those who can least afford it.

Solar portable lamp companies, such as Little Sun, must navigate informal economies and limited distribution infrastructure to market and sell their products to customers who benefit from the environmental, social, and health improvements that these lamps can provide. (Source: Little Sun)

But although Kenya’s economy lacks many of the market and political institutions that facilitate business operations in the industrialized world, there is significant potential for businesses to support rapid economic growth and generate social impact. A variety of successful solar portable lamp businesses have reframed Kenya’s lack of institutions (let’s call them institutional voids) as opportunities for economic growth.

In 2010, two Harvard Business School professors published the book Winning in Emerging Markets: A Roadmap for Strategy and Execution, highlighting the opportunities and challenges of operating a business in a developing country. They also released a toolkit for identifying and dealing with a country’s institutional voids, raising the following questions that are pertinent to running a solar portable lamp company in Kenya:

  1. Do large retail chains exist in the country? Do they reach all consumers or only wealthy/urban ones?
  2. Do consumers use credit cards, or does cash dominate transactions? Can consumers get credit to make purchases?
  3. Is there a deep network of suppliers? How strong are the logistics and transportation infrastructures?

Successful solar portable lamp companies in Kenya are using a variety of strategies to address these challenges and to mitigate, avoid, and leverage the institutional voids that would otherwise deter or limit business operations. 

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developing countries, distribution, green economy, infrastructure, institutional voids, Kenya, rural electrification, solar portable lamps

Globally, new investment in renewable energy fell 11 percent in 2012. But in Latin America and the Caribbean (not including Brazil), it grew at a remarkable rate of 127 percent, totaling US$4.6 billion. This was the opening context for the 3rd Annual Renewable Energy Finance Forum for Latin America and the Caribbean (REFF-LAC), held this week in Miami, Florida. The yearly event, coordinated by Euromoney Energy Events, the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) and the Latin America and Caribbean Council on Renewable Energy (LAC-CORE), aims to connect developers and investors who can continue fostering the strong investment climate for renewables that is happening in the region.

LAC-CORE president, Carlos St. James, speaking at the 3rd Annual REFF-LAC conference. (Photo credit: Mark Konold)

Presenters included project developers, financiers, and government officials, all of whom had experiences to share about what’s working in the region. In some places, like Chile and Peru, project tendering is working to advance renewable energy deployment. In the Caribbean, mechanisms such as net metering and feed-in tariffs are still the preferred approach to fostering renewables development. Many presenters stressed that the key to continued success in the region is the political will that creates an environment conducive to successful renewable energy investment. They also highlighted how projects become more attractive the less they have to rely on subsidies or other support mechanisms.

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Caribbean, Central America, developing countries, energy, energy efficiency, energy security, finance, renewable energy, renewable energy finance, sustainable development

Across the developing world, retailers are selling solar-powered portable lamps that can meet basic lighting demands, reduce dependence on expensive and inefficient kerosene lighting, and contribute to important development goals like energy access and improved literacy rates.

Solar portable lamp companies must find innovative ways of restoring consumer confidence in their products after a flood of cheap, faulty models created a distrust of the technology (Source: OneDegreeSolar).

Small solar portable lamp companies are learning how to navigate the relatively unstructured business environments of developing countries, but a lack of consumer confidence in the unfamiliar technology is a serious deterrent to scalability. Confidence has been eroded further by the presence of low-quality lamps that mimic higher-quality products. To increase sales and improve both the social and environmental impact of solar portable lamps, companies must develop a dependable product and brand that is appealing to customers both familiar and unfamiliar with solar technology.

Gaurav Manchanda, an Indian-born entrepreneur and founder of One Degree Solar, found a new way to restore consumer confidence in a low-cost lamp that meets the standards of the Lighting Africa project. He developed a short messaging service (SMS) technology that both provides customer service and allows the company to monitor the social and environmental impacts of every lamp sold.

The use of mobile phone technology has skyrocketed in East Africa, and Manchanda’s development of a customer service practice that utilizes this unique market characteristic allows his product to penetrate markets previously characterized by uncertainty. Manchanda’s interest in tracking the social and environmental impact is based on his background in development work, but is also reflective of this market as a whole. Companies that operate in the solar portable lamp market are typically social enterprises interested in the triple bottom line of economic profit, social impact, and environmental health.

Manchanda realized that high-quality customer service is a competitive advantage and a way to generate confidence in relatively new and unfamiliar products among customers with very little purchasing power. With the help of an in-country partner, he developed an SMS platform hosted by Safaricom and Airtel that allows his company to send bulk text messages to purchasers of One Degree Solar products.

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developing countries, east Africa, energy, Energy Access, Green Technology, Innovation, rural electrification, solar portable lamps

Schematic of Phase 1 of ContourGlobal’s Project KivuWatt (source: BBC)

Along the western border of Rwanda, an innovative energy project on Africa’s 2,700 square kilometer Lake Kivu is generating electricity in a region beset by both geochemical and geopolitical instability.

Lake Kivu is one of the world’s three known “exploding lakes,” presenting a threat as well as an opportunity for local communities. Volcanic and bacterial activity in the lake generates substantial methane deposits that, if untapped, could erupt violently with disastrous effects on local lives, wildlife, and the environment. If safely extracted, however, the methane could provide a source of electricity and reduce the geochemical risks associated with the untapped gas.

To harness the lake’s energy potential, private sector investors are financing Project KivuWatt, a unique technological solution that translates potential risks into both socioeconomic development and geochemical stability. The initiative offers a model for successful power-producing projects in Rwanda and other developing countries.

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developing countries, electricity, Green Technology, Innovation, Lake Kivu, Methane, natural disasters, Project KivuWatt, Rwanda

A team of Worldwatch researchers spent last week in Haiti meeting with energy sector stakeholders and visiting important energy project sites. The stakeholder meetings were incredibly enlightening and we learned a great deal about the obstacles to achieving improved and more widespread energy services throughout the country.

One successful energy project in Haiti is the solar installation on the roof of Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais. (Photo Credit: Matt Lucky)

Overall, there are a lot of determined people doing great work in Haiti, with the hope that they can improve the energy sector, including helping to expand electricity services beyond the 25 percent of the population that currently receives these services. A major barrier to expanded energy services, however, and something that was a common theme throughout our stakeholder meetings, is that Haiti currently lacks a clear and long-term energy framework.

While many energy plans have been developed by various government agencies, institutions, and consultancies, they remain interim, uncoordinated, and lack a common vision. As a result, plans often go unfulfilled or only accomplish isolated goals on a short-term basis. It is true that Haiti needs plans that can provide rapid results, as it is still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake and dealing with a number of other urgent, immediate challenges. However, Haiti is also in dire need of long-term and stable infrastructure development that will help it to prosper in the future, and a forward-thinking energy framework will go a long way in helping Haiti to accomplish this goal.

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Caribbean, developing countries, development, electricity, energy, energy policy, Haiti, low-carbon, renewable energy

Kerosene lamps, such as this one, are used widely for illumination in eastern Africa, but contribute to numerous health and economic problems (Source: Firesika).

The United Nations recently declared the beginning of the Decade of Sustainable Energy for All, continuing the focus on energy access that it began in 2012 with the Year of Sustainable Energy for All. Energy access is widely recognized as a key component of achieving the Millennium Development Goals set out by the United Nations, with impacts on the improvement of health, education, and economic development.

This international focus on energy access stems from the fact that, in many developing areas of the world, energy use is still mostly limited to traditional biomass use (i.e. burning wood for cook fires) and kerosene for lighting, with extremely limited or zero access to modern energy services. In Ethiopia, only 2 percent of the population in rural areas has access to electricity. In Kenya, the inhabitants of remote areas are only slightly better off, with 4 percent electrification rate for the rural population.

However, the use of kerosene for illumination brings with it numerous health, environmental, economic and social problems.  Indoor use of the fuel use significantly deteriorates air quality in homes, leading directly to respiratory illnesses and fatalities. And, as if chronic illnesses are not enough, the risk of fire from overturned kerosene lamps is extremely high. In an interview with an in-country energy expert in Kenya, Worldwatch learned that estimates ranged between 6,000 and 12,000 deaths per year from kerosene fires in Kenya alone, with many of them being children. Overturned kerosene lamps are known to ignite homes quickly and the impacts disproportionately affect women and children, who spend much more of their time within the house.

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Africa, developing countries, development, distributed generation, electricity, Energy Access, Ethiopia, Kenya, kerosene, rural electrification, sub-Saharan Africa

Smog in Beijing recently reached record levels. (Source: Flickr user michaelhenly)

China recently announced that it would be joining the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), as a global leader in terms of installed capacity and investment. This acknowledgement of its status as a clean energy leader may come as a surprise to some, given the recent headlines about the country’s astounding air pollution. But in 2012, China invested US$ 68 billion on developing renewable energies, 55 percent greater than U.S. investments, making it the largest clean energy investor in the world. Installed capacities for hydro and wind power rose to 249 and 63 gigawatt (GW), achieving another two global “top spots.” Looking into 2013, with aims to add 21 GW of hydro, 18 GW of wind and 10 GW of solar power in a single year, it seems that nothing can stop China’s clean energy ambition.

However, what matters to the energy sustainability is not only the scale of clean energy products, but also the environment-friendly approaches through which the sector is built and operates. While clean energy is certainly not to blame for the large portion of pollution problems, China’s efforts to develop renewable energy so quickly have generated some environmental problems, too. A lack of effective environmental policy-making and regulation has led to unsustainable practices in the renewable energy sector that cast a shadow on those “top spot” numbers.

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China, developing countries, development, energy, energy policy, low-carbon, renewable energy

The DR’s National Energy Commission leads by example using Net Metering to reduce monthly bills. This solution also provides surplus renewable energy to the grid, reducing the country’s total amount of fossil fuel-based energy.

Since October 2012, the energy sector in the Dominican Republic has been in the spotlight as a result of President Danilo Medina’s efforts to deal with the country’s larger fiscal crisis. Over the years, decisions made within the sector have led to an unsustainable level of debt, poorly maintained infrastructure, and a reliance on fossil fuels that, in 2010, cost the government US$2.6 billion.

With all of this attention, the opportunity exists to overhaul the floundering electricity sector and bring it in line with the country’s vision of a sustainable future. The Dominican Republic has a stated goal of obtaining 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. And at the recent United Nations climate talks in Doha, Qatar, Mr. Omar Ramirez, Executive Vice-President of the Dominican National Council for Climate Change and the Clean Development Mechanism (CNCCMDL), said the country will reduce its carbon emissions 25 percent from 2012 levels by 2030.

These are ambitious targets for a country that relies on fossil fuels for more than 90 percent of its primary energy. But they can be achieved if decision makers seize this moment and embrace new thinking. It will not be enough to just add more generating capacity to the mix. Real reform will come when subsidies not longer hide the true cost of fossil fuel use, when renewable energy promotion is prioritized, and when energy sector agencies are structured in a way that provides transparency and accountability and is in line with stated long-term energy goals.

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Caribbean, Climate Change, developing countries, Dominican Republic, electricity, emissions reductions, energy policy, energy security, renewable energy, sustainable development

Renewable energy development is critical to climate adaptation efforts for numerous reasons, including its minimal use of increasingly scarce water resources. (Source: ClimateTechWiki).

For countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change—especially developing countries—the lack of urgency in the recently ended United Nations climate talks failed to reflect the reality back home. In many of these places, the effects of climate change are already taking their toll on social and economic development, not to mention human lives. So it’s no surprise that throughout the halls and meeting rooms of the 18th Conference of the Parties in Doha, Qatar, the most vulnerable countries made it abundantly clear that—for them—adaptation, not mitigation, is the number-one priority.

The impacts of climate change are mounting. Shifting rainfall patterns are already affecting Kenya’s agricultural sector, and the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events are necessitating rebuilding in numerous Caribbean countries. But unfortunately, both adaptation and energy, a critical area for development, are consistently shortchanged in climate negotiations. Of the “fast-start financing” provided by Germany in 2010 and 2011, only 28 percent was allocated for adaptation projects, while mitigation received 48 percent of the funds (the rest went to REDD+ and multipurpose activities).

Meanwhile, the energy sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, and the emission reduction opportunities that the sector presents, hardly made it into the recent discussions. When renewable energy is brought up, it is most often in the context of mitigation, highlighting how a shift away from fossil fuel-fired power generation can reduce emissions and slow further climate change.

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adaptation, Climate Change, developing countries, development, energy, renewable energy, UNFCCC