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

Two men install a photovoltaic system in Sri Lanka. (Source: MPRNews)

Kenya’s power grid does not reach the small farming village of Kiptusuri, making it difficult for local farmers to charge their cell phones. Mogotio, the nearest town connected to the grid, has a small cell phone charging store where waits can be as long as three days. One Kiptusuri resident, Sara Ruto, took the initiative to purchase a solar photovoltaic system, providing lighting for her children to study by and allowing her to provide local residents with more reasonably priced cell phone charging services. Sixty-two other families in the village subsequently installed solar power systems, providing electricity to a previously unlit town.

Small-scale distributed renewable energy is also being developed in places such as Nepal, where 80 percent of the population has no access to the national electricity grid. Solar photovoltaic systems are beginning to be employed in clusters in outlying villages, providing power to between 6 and 12 houses each. Micro-hydropower programs have been implemented in Sri Lanka and the Philippines. There are even efforts to use small subterranean chambers designed to convert cow manure into biogas. The United Nations Development Programme has begun focusing on microgrid solutions as the primary method of providing electricity to rural areas. In many cases, microgrids are more economical and, in addition to off-grid technologies, they represent one of the best options for electrifying the most remote areas.

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Climate Change, developing countries, distributed generation, renewable energy, solar power, sustainable development

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.

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Central America, distributed generation, finance, renew, renewable energy finance, rural electrification, solar power, wind power

Solar panel in rural Thailand

This is the second in a two-part series about my time in Mae Sot, Thailand, working with the Border Green Energy Team (BGET). In my first post, I discussed a national government program that installed solar home systems (SHS) on unelectrified homes, as well as the program’s shortcomings. Now I will discuss how BGET has attempted to remedy the situation and keep as many of these systems functioning as they can.

BGET asked me to try to develop an alternative energy program that the organization could operate independently, without grant funding. This would require another a separate source of income, the most logical source being payments from the end user.

Why would BGET want to develop such a program in the first place? For one, the organization would be more self-sufficient and earn income that isn’t dependent on outside grants or contracts. In addition, however, research shows that distributed generation projects that include financial contributions from end users are more successful. End users treat the equipment with more care and are more invested in the project. Technology “dumps,” once popular, are now widely acknowledged as less than ideal. 

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distributed generation, renewable energy, solar power, Thailand