New UNEP report shows every small village can have access to clean energy solutions

Publish date: December 1, 2011

DURBAN, South Africa – A new report presented yesterday by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and called “Energy Smart Food for People and Climate” suggests renewable energy produced in small quantities is a sensible way of delivering energy to remote communities and going around some of the problems posed by alternative energy development.

According to Svend Søyland, Bellona’s adviser on international energy and climate issues, “UNEP has taken a leading role in thinking about the relationship between food and energy production.”

“This is smart thinking here,” Søyland said.

The jury is still out on whether developing countries should place all their bets on expanding network capacity or whether renewable energy can still be produced without building large-scale networks.

The presentation of the report sparked a discussion where a strong claim was made that in rural areas in many developing countries, off-grid energy solutions – that is, solutions where energy is produced by locally run solar or wind energy systems – can both be cheaper and easier to implement than centralized grid-based energy supply.

Local energy from the sun and the wind

In other words, project owners need not look to invest heavily into large-capacity networks, but more local wind and solar energy projects would certainly have a beneficial effect in rural regions.

[picture1 { Svend Søyland is Bellona’s adviser on international energy and climate issues.}]

“This turns the accepted approach on its head,” says Søyland, and points out that the prevailing opinion has been that grid-based solutions from major manufacturers should be cheaper.

Now this view is challenged dramatically, and it’s very good news since it shows that the possibility is there to realize a number of solar and wind solutions, said Søyland optimistically about the conclusions of the new report.

Not only are local renewable energy projects capable of yielding favorable environmental and climate effects, the report says, but their sizable benefits go beyond providing clean energy supply and combating climate change:

A significant proportion of public and private investments in renewable energy projects flow through to rural areas. For this reason, effective renewable energy policies can support sustainable rural development. The construction and operation of a renewable energy project primarily benefit the landowner or food processing company. However, renewable energy projects, especially larger ones, can also bring benefits to the local community by pumping more income into the economy and creating employment opportunities. Some of the new revenues can be channeled toward improving public services and attracting new businesses to the community. The initial project can generate new jobs, but long-term employment opportunities are also possible through the creation of local companies involved in the further development of renewable energy technologies, the manufacturing of components and the provision of related energy services. These higher wages jobs favor the development of local skills and help rural communities attract skilled workers. For more remote rural communities, policies can support access to locally produced renewable energy when developing infrastructure and importing energy from outside the area is prohibitively expensive. (s. 46 )

No “polluting detours”

But the main goal, of course, is to fight climate change, invigorate the economy, and raise the standard of living by expanding energy supply with renewable energy – not with the help of “band-aid” fossil fuel based solutions. The report recommends to jump straight to renewable energy and not go on a “polluting detour,” getting by on carbon-based energy carriers:

A combination of small-scale renewable energy systems and improved use of traditional biomass can provide access to reliable and affordable energy for many rural, forest and fishing communities currently without basic energy services in low-GDP countries. In the short term, fossil fuels may also be required to address energy poverty in rural areas. However, where feasible, it would be preferable to leap-frog directly to renewable energy systems to avoid investments in technologies that will lock users into fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. The potential co-benefits of renewable energy on livelihoods, employment, health, rural development should be considered (s. 50).

So far, many have believed that big networks are required in developing nations as the cheapest way to deliver renewable energy to the consumers. And the new approach shows that one doesn’t need big players with big money who can build big networks: It is both possible and just as reasonable, the new report demonstrates, to provide rural populations with clean energy in a decentralized manner and via systems set up independently from the major supply networks.

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