When power failures on an unheard-of scale left about 600 million people in India in the dark this year, advocates of solar and wind power could again question why a country baked in sunshine and buffeted by winds over land and sea has not moved faster to install renewable energy systems. Across the developing world, alternative energy could jump traditional power systems reliant on expensive grids, which often never bring electricity to the poor, just as mobile phones have made waiting for land lines unnecessary.
The World Bank, governments and numerous nongovernmental organizations are taking up the challenge, not only because electricity (and solar-heated water) can change people’s lives for the better, but also because in some countries with the requisite capacity, energy from natural renewable sources could be an export earner.
Lester R. Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, who has tracked advances in alternative energy in numerous countries and who predicted the now phenomenal Chinese boom in solar power, has argued that countries in North Africa have enough sun to fuel a large part of energy needs in Europe. It will be interesting to see if newly elected governments along the Mediterranean’s southern shores will explore these possibilities and be willing to invest in them.
Most recently, the World Bank has been trumpeting it success in bringing solar energy to nomadic herders in Mongolia, who account for about 700,000 of the total population of 2.8 million. Mongolians herders are known for their unique transportable homes called gers, or yurts. The Bank says that 100,000 of those homes (and half a million people living in them) now have portable electricity through small solar-home systems.
Solar-to-go systems, subsidized by support from the World Bank and the Netherlands, are powerful enough to provide not only lighting for Mongolian families, but also electricity for small appliances, mobile phone chargers, televisions and radios.
In India, decades of work have gone into developing and promoting alternative energy, both by the government and by nongovernmental organizations, though progress has been much slower than it has in China for a number of reasons, including the size of the population – 1.2 billion people – and the large number of rural poor, who often do not have the education or skills to maintain solar equipment.
India’s Energy and Resources Institute, known as TERI – whose director general, Rajendra Pachauri, is also chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – estimates that 330 million Indians have no access to electricity, and many use kerosene lanterns that emit, collectively, tons of carbon dioxide. TERI’s Lighting a Billion Lives campaign calculates that over 10 years, one solar lantern can replace 500-600 liters (132 to 158 gallons) of kerosene.
India is also a prime candidate for the wide use of solar water heaters. TERI and the Federation of Hotels and Restaurants Associations of India are working together to expand the use of solar-heated water in tourist facilities. Some Western experts question, however, whether water can be heated to high-enough temperatures to kill germs in kitchens and laundries in a country where infections of various kinds are common. But there are many other uses for water in resorts and hotels. With energy boosts adding electricity from solar power, warm water can be heated further in dish washing and laundries.
Solar water heaters are growing in popularity for homes in China, where an estimated 150 million people rely on them for at least part of household needs, according to the Worldwatch Institute.
Wind power has also been advancing in India, which is now the world’s fifth-largest producer of electricity from wind, a natural resource that generates 8 percent of the country’s energy. TERI has been part of efforts to develop more accurate wind forecasting to improve predictability, according to a technical paper written by Ankit Narula for the publication Energetica India in August. He wrote that while the use of wind power is growing in a country seriously short of energy, it is still an unpredictable resource because of imprecise forecasts, unlike in more developed countries such as Denmark, Germany and the United States, where regulations require accurate predictions and suppliers can be penalized for failing to meet their forecasts.
Alternative renewable energy sources, which also include hydropower, geothermal and biofuels, may be initially expensive to put to use, especially in poor countries. There have been setbacks. In Cuba, the Inter Press Service news agency reported on Oct. 4 that electricity generated by renewable sources dropped to 3.8 percent of power generated in 2011, down from 18 percent in 1979. But subsidies from the World Bank, regional lending institutions, foreign aid donors and national governments – along with more entrepreneurs in the private sector — are bringing costs down. High energy prices push interest up.
REN21, an international network founded in 2005 for people, organizations and institutions of all kinds involved in the promotion and production of renewable energy, focused attention in its Renewables 2011 Global Status Report on developing countries, where official support is growing.
“By early 2011, at least 118 countries had some type of policy target or renewable support policy at the national level, up from 55 countries in early 2005,” the report said. “Developing countries, which now represent more than half of all countries with policy targets and half of all countries with renewable support policies are playing an increasingly important role in advancing renewable energy.”
As demonstrated in Mongolia and other places where people in rural areas may be few and far between, new energy sources that are not dependent on connecting to power grids are considered the most effective way to upgrade the lives of people in villages and small towns. As the Global Status Report report concludes: “Off-grid renewable solutions are increasingly acknowledged to be the cheapest and most sustainable options for rural areas in much of the developing world.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.