THE world has an energy dilemma. On the one hand, we need to drastically clean up energy use in higher-income countries to tackle climate change. But on the other, there are still millions of people who don’t have reliable access to energy. As their energy access improves, there is a risk that this could offset some of the world’s shift to low-carbon energy. It doesn’t have to be that way: this is also an opportunity for some countries to skip much of the fossil fuel stage altogether.
For low-income countries, making big improvements in access to electricity is crucial. Better access to energy is linked to improvements in education, economic development and health, for example. According to the latest data from international organisation Sustainable Energy for All, more than 750 million people lack access to electricity and over 2.5 billion people don’t have access to clean cooking technologies or fuels. Many more have limited or unreliable access to electricity.
Improving this situation could be a chance to do things differently. Instead of developing energy infrastructures based on fossil fuels, low-income countries could leapfrog straight to cleaner, low-carbon technologies.
This isn’t a pipe dream. In the telecommunications sector, for example, landlines never fully took hold in many low-income countries. Instead, people moved straight to using mobile phones. This has also enabled services such as banking via “mobile money”.
The potential for leapfrogging in the electricity sector has been strengthened recently by the steep fall in the costs of renewable technologies, and reductions in the costs of complementary technologies such as batteries. According to a recent report by the International Renewable Energy Agency, the cost of large-scale solar has fallen by 85 per cent in the past decade, while wind power costs have fallen by about 50 per cent. The conventional assumption that fossil fuel electricity is cheaper is now on its way out, as is the idea that improved access is all about centralised electricity grids.
A good example of this is the solar homes programme in Bangladesh, which extended electricity access to 4 million homes (about 12 per cent of the population) by 2016. This provided much quicker access to services such as electric lighting than extending the centralised electricity grid would have done.
Similarly, off-grid solar systems now provide about 7 per cent of Rwanda’s population with access to electricity. Many of these systems are large enough to power TVs and appliances as well as lighting.
Of course, initiatives like these don’t completely solve the energy access problem. To provide the necessary power for industries and all domestic uses, renewables must be deployed at a much larger scale. This requires investment in grid infrastructure, too. It will be important to avoid repeating the recent experience of Vietnam, where solar and wind investment increased rapidly, but many plants couldn’t operate fully because of grid constraints.
So what else needs to happen to make leapfrogging possible? It is crucial to recognise that most low-income countries have very low emissions and their priority has to be expanding energy systems to underpin economic development and universal energy access. Fossil fuels shouldn’t be entirely ruled out, but should be part of a wider strategy that prioritises low-carbon investments. That often means reforms to policies and regulations so that low-carbon options aren’t disadvantaged, and a big scale-up of finance from donors to reduce the financial risks of adoption. Only then will low-income countries be able to leapfrog to cleaner energy.
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