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.
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.
“Poverty alleviation” means more than raising incomes
The social and cultural well-being of populations in relative poverty is a primary concern of sustainable development, but narrow interpretations of what is meant by “poverty” have held back sustainable development, both in the energy arena and elsewhere. Oversimplified and static definitions of “poverty,” “developing” countries, and even “development” itself have contributed to problematic assumptions that societies or cultures are fixed instead of dynamic or changing, and that goals for progress are singular across all cultures. The question of what defines “poverty” matters acutely to sustainable energy development, because those who are considered poor are generally the same people who lack access to modern energy services.
According to the World Bank, an estimated 1.3 billion people currently live on less than $1.25 a day. But statistical measurements of poverty that are based on income level, such as this, do not adequately define the range of social factors which are part of what is meant by poverty. Definitions of poverty must consider broader social causes and outcomes, such as the lack of cultural and political participation, lack of gender rights, lack of opportunities such as literacy and education. All such causes are in fact what lead to the physical conditions of poverty that are commonly delineated, such as difficult living conditions, undernourishment and hunger, lack of physical health.
As a result, “poverty alleviation” cannot simply mean boosting incomes and should not be sought through any single standard of (globalized) economic development. Rather, it should be pursued through efforts to ensure the prosperity of locally self-determined cultural systems. And one significant way that this can happen in the energy arena is through the implementation of distributed renewable energy technologies.
The development spectrum
As the example of poverty alleviation illustrates, the tendency of the metrics-driven approach to development is to oversimplify, and to suggest that development happens on a linear spectrum, taking societies from underdeveloped (or poor) to developed. But an alternative and more socially comprehensive approach would be, rather than seeking to “develop” the “poor” in low-income countries, to instead ask: “How can development take place in participatory and locally self-determined ways to allow for the thriving of critical social and cultural activities?”
The deployment of renewable energy technologies, by necessity, requires both self-determinationand international participation, because the critical technologies and know-how come primarily from technologically complex countries. Germany, China, and the United States lead in producing the solar and wind technologies that can be of great benefit to low-income communities in Africa or South Asia. Introducing these technologies through “technology transfer,” “capacity building,” or “implementation aid” is best accomplished in ways that are both participatory and context-specific.
This participatory approach to harnessing clean energy sources is precisely what the Worldwatch Institute seeks to do through its “sustainable energy roadmap” model. The roadmap approach is country-specific and aims to work with policymakers not just at the national level, but also at the provincial, municipal, and community levels. Worldwatch aims to engage with a wide diversity of stakeholders, including financial and industry players, project developers from both large and small companies, and the local communities that ultimately use the energy being generated.