How can renewable energy benefit the developing world?
For many of the developing countries around the world there lies a number of underlying issues that prevents them from progressing financially and sociopolitically. Its for these many reasons that around 16% of the world population, around 1.2 billion people, does not have access to electricity. This number would be much higher if we were to consider those who are connected to an extremely poor quality of electricity.
Building and maintaining a comprehensive power grid is just not possible for a large amount of areas around the world, which is why settlements are having to look at alternative methods of making electricity available to everyone. The answer I look at in this article is a decentralised power generation system using renewable energy such as solar and wind, to power towns, cities and even whole countries.
Don’t even think about fossil fuels
Fossil fuels are not only unsustainable in terms of their global impact and depleting resources, but if a developing country is to invest in the long term progression of their electricity generation, fossil fuels certainly aren’t the way to go. Countries such as Mali, in the north west of Africa, that are landlocked and have limited natural energy resources, are primarily run on diesel fuel generators.
In terms of the initial investment to buy in the generators, the cost is quite low, which makes it a financially viable option for towns and cities; however, the cost of diesel is getting higher and higher, not to mention how inefficient it is to power full towns and cities using this method. Using these generators as their primary energy source also created huge problems for the country in March 2012 when a conflict arose, making the importation of diesel impossible, which sent most of the country into a blackout.
Due to the geographic location of many developing countries, natural resources are available; the issue is harnessing their potential. One reliable resources in many of the African and Middle Eastern countries is the sun. The earth receives roughly 173,000 terawatts (173 trillion kW) of energy from the sun at any given moment throughout the day, which is around 10,000 times more energy than the entire world uses. Harnessing the potential of solar power in third world countries that have large exposure to the sun is a great alternative to fossil fuel generation.
One of the key issues with solar energy is cost. Solar panel technology is still relatively inefficient. The panels themselves are extremely expensive for the amount of energy generated per square meter, which means external support would most likely be needed in order to provide this technology for developing countries.
Once they have been installed, however, the energy generates itself with no further investment needed. This provides a much more stable and cost-effective investment from external supporters as constant fuel is not needed to power the operation. Solar panels make financial sense in the long term and contribute towards a sustainable future.
A great example of solar power potential is the way that it has transformed the Indian village of Dharnai. Before Greenpeace, with two other financial backers, came into the area and installed a solar power micro-grid, the village was completely without power and lived within the restrictions of daylight hours.
Now, with a small 100 kilowatt solar power system that is completely independent from any commercial electricity company, the village is free to cook whenever they so please and walk the streets without fear. This grid serves around 450 homes and 2,400 residents. It’s storage capacity allows it to function during sunless hours, meaning it is truly comprehensive. Solar power has also helped with the provision of clean water through a solar powered water pumping system.
In the right countries, wind energy can provide an extremely effective solution to energy poverty. As its name would suggest, the strategic placement of the turbines is crucial: high, constant wind levels must be apparent in the area in which the turbine is placed for it to be fully effective.
Most commercial wind turbines that are installed nowadays have a 2 MW capacity and cost roughly $3-4 million, which is a huge investment for any country, developed or not. The real draw to wind energy, however, is that it is extremely efficient and can create huge amounts of energy in a sustainable manner. Just one of these wind turbines would have the potential to power a whole developing village or town given the right placement and wind environment.
Many of the North African developing countries that are situated along the Sahara Desert are yet to take full advantage of their natural energy potential. Perhaps the abovementioned solar energy would be the most obvious of choices for alternative energy; however, wind levels in Northern Africa along the Western Sahara are amongst the highest in the world, meaning wind energy would be a fantastic move for those areas suffering from energy poverty.
A good example of a country just beginning to invest in wind energy is Afghanistan. Having been war-torn for many years, with a challenging social and political infrastructure, Afghanistan is struggling to create and maintain the simplest of societal frameworks. Despite around 80% of urban populations having access to electricity, much of rural Afghanistan has no connection at all.
Despite the challenges facing the country, it is blessed with natural energy resources in abundance, wind included. The highlands of Afghanistan, especially in the Panjshir province in the north east, can have impressively high wind levels, with its high altitude and mountainous terrain. The site was financed by the United States and was said to cost around $1 million. However, due to the aforementioned sociopolitical issues in the country, it is still not being used in the correct manner.
Certain locations are a good fit for certain types of alternative energy, others aren’t. This is definitely the case when hydropower is concerned. Luckily many developing countries worldwide have great areas of water, such as waterfalls, streams and rapids that are a perfect match for hydropower generation. The current biggest producer of hydroelectricity is China; however, is used on a large scale by other countries such as Brazil, Canada, United States and Russia.
This kind of hydropower is very much on a commercial level, meaning huge investment and ginormous amounts of land and equipment. This is obviously not a viable option for a developing country, which is why micro-grid technology is used to produce just enough to power a small settlement. A micro hydropower system can generate anything between 5 kW - 100 kW all from using the natural flow of water. This is well enough to fulfill a small town or village’s basic electricity needs.
One of the most exciting and interesting examples of hydropower’s potential is in Costa Rica. The country of Costa Rica has just about left the ‘developing countries’ category, but their relationship with renewable energy was ongoing way before this point and helped them to grow as a nation financially and politically. In 2016, Costa Rica ran completely on 100% renewable electricity for 250 days, 74.35% of which came from hydropower generation.
The country’s population stands at around 4.9 million, showing that given the right geographical resources, hydropower has massive potential. That said, Costa Rica’s development in terms of renewable energy has had much more funding than what is likely to be available to small towns and villages, but that is why micro hydroelectricity grids were invented. If a relatively high current stream or river is located near a power-less village, hydropower could be the perfect solution.
Sugarcane Ethanol: Brazil
Brazil is the largest producer of sugarcane in the world, making over double the amount of second place India. It’s warm, tropical climate is the perfect environment to grow the crop we use for some many things in our daily lives. However, one of the uses that we may not think of is its ability to replace petrol.
By extracting the sugar from the plant, letting it ferment with yeast, we can naturally make ethanol, which we can make into a biofuel alternative to regular commercial petrol and diesel. As a result of Brazil’s efforts in this generation process, the country now uses around 40% less petroleum in 2017 than before, seeing more than 50% of cars using biofuel.
The downside to this process is that in order to transfer this model into other countries, Brazil and other suitable grow-sites, would have to occupy more and more space in order to grow the sugarcane, destroying wildlife and critical areas such as the Amazon. This could, however, be transferred to those countries in the developing world that are suited to grow sugarcane. Not only would this invite investment, but could also provide great financial potential from exports. Countries like India and Pakistan, that have much of their population living in energy poverty, could really benefit from utilising their already high output of sugarcane.