by Baskut Tuncak
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With the debate around patents and climate change-related technologies at Copenhagen last December, it became easy to forget that there are many low-cost and clean renewable energy technologies available in the public domain. A recent UN meeting highlighted how these technologies can revolutionize the way of life for rural communities.
About 80 percent of rural Africa is without electricity, as are 1.5 billion people worldwide. Rural communities rely on kerosene, firewood, and dried dung for fuel for lighting and cooking. These traditional energy sources pose many health hazards, especially for women. Air quality is a major concern with kerosene and open fires, releasing carcinogens, airborne particles, and greenhouse gasses. Women are disproportionately exposed to open fires for cooking. Midwives working at night have to rely on a dim, flickering light. In addition, women are also the ones who scavenge for firewood or transport kerosene, often in inhospitable terrain. Thus, besides being a health risk, this is also a tremendous loss of productivity for the village; as women in these villages are forced to spend more and more time in search of diminishing fuel sources.
At the Expert Meeting on Green and Renewable Energy Technologies for Rural Development, organized by the UN Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD), several promising solutions were described for providing electricity and cooking gas for rural communities. These solutions –- solar, biomass-to-electricity, biomass digesters, geothermal, micro-hydro and micro-wind power –- were each shown to be particularly affordable and technologically feasible in a variety of settings.
One of the most important messages to come from the meeting was that the technologies deployed must be reliable. To ensure a reliable alternative energy supply and to help empower rural women, one man has started a brilliant effort to ensure solar power takes hold in these villages. Previous efforts failed in large part due to the inability to maintain and repair the necessary equipment. Training young men as solar engineers proved futile, as they would quickly leave to more lucrative urban markets.
But, Mr. Bunker Roy, founder of Barefoot College of India, has found a solution to this problem: training illiterate grandmothers. From each African village, he brings an illiterate grandmother back to India for a month of intensive training on solar photovoltaic system maintenance and repair. Learning alongside other grandmothers from villages throughout Africa, the newly-trained solar engineers return to their home village with a newfound sense of confidence and purpose. And, most importantly, they remain in their village, providing a much needed service and passing on their knowledge.
With the provision of clean, off-grid electricity from solar panels, the air is cleaner, the village is more productive and women are becoming empowered. What’s more, it makes clear economic sense. The cost of a solar system large enough for several lanterns is roughly the cost of one year’s supply of kerosene. But, solar energy can only solve some of a rural communities energy needs. Other experiences showed that there are other alternatives which can meet the need for sustainable development in rural communities.
In Nepal and Cambodia, biogas has proven to be a clean and reliable source of cooking fuel. Micro-wind and Micro-hydro are being deployed in Vanuatu and Mozambique, respectively. Many countries are experimenting with “mini-grids” to supply the generated electricity. The Zambia is exploring alternative distribution models, rolling out “energy kiosks” in several villages. India has a program to provide efficient cooking stoves to rural areas in an effort to reduce air pollution.
Several countries are re-visiting previous efforts for large-scale alternative energy generation as well. The Zambia is resurrecting a geothermal plant from the 1980s to help it cope with an increasing energy deficit, which they attribute to climate change, due to lower levels of hydroelectric power production in recent years. Mauritius is revisiting the feasibility of wind turbines, especially recent advancements that allow for them to collapse during cyclones.
But, there are challenges. First, financing is still a challenge, even with the technologies being off patent protection and in the public domain. The Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) has provided some funding, e.g. for Biogas projects in Nepal, but the CDM is geared towards large projects and has a cumbersome administrative process. However, promising financing solutions are gradually being offered, including public-private partnerships.
There are also cultural challenges. For example, one effective solution for rural China – placing toilets on top of biogas digesters – was suggested as being culturally untenable in at least one country by a speaker.
Finally, there is the challenge of education. Accessing knowledge on what has worked and failed in other villages is crucial. An unnecessarily poor experience with a particular technology can retard the adoption of that or other technologies by a village for several decades. In addition, it is necessary to educate villages about health and environment concerns, such as smoke inhalation and climate change, in order to generate further demand for these renewable energy technologies.
Despite these challenges, this meeting showed that there is much promise in bringing clean electricity to rural villages around the world. With electricity, much more will be possible, including the ability to provide irrigation for farming, encourage education, and generally enable human development in the broadest sense.
Baskut Tuncak is a Law Fellow with the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). His work at CIEL focuses on technology, innovation and the global environment. After a brief career as a scientist, he returned to his native Seattle to study law, as it relates to technology and the urban environment. He is currently based in Geneva, Switzerland and can be reached at btuncak [at] ciel [dot] org.
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