Can low-income countries leapfrog to completely clean energy technologies?

THE world comes with an energy dilemma. On the main one hand, we have to drastically clean up energy use in higher-income countries to tackle climate change. But on the other, you may still find millions of folks who don’t have reliable usage of energy. As their energy access improves, you will find a risk that could offset some of the world’s shift to low-carbon energy. It doesn’t need to be that way: this is also an opportunity for a few countries to skip a lot of the fossil fuel stage altogether.

For low-income countries, making big improvements in usage of electricity is vital. Better access to energy is associated with improvements in education, monetary development and health, for instance. In line with the latest data from international organisation Sustainable Energy for All, more than 750 million persons lack usage of electricity and over 2.5 billion persons don’t get access to clean cooking technologies or fuels. Many more have limited or unreliable usage of electricity.

Improving this example could be a chance to do things differently. Rather than developing energy infrastructures predicated on fossil fuels, low-income countries could leapfrog straight to cleaner, low-carbon technologies.

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This isn’t a fantasy. In the telecommunications sector, for example, landlines never fully took hold in lots of low-income countries. Instead, people moved straight to using mobile phones. It has also enabled services such as for example banking via “mobile money”.

The prospect of leapfrogging in the electricity sector has been strengthened recently by the steep fall in the expenses of renewable technologies, and reductions in the costs of complementary technologies such as for example batteries. According to a recently available report by the International Renewable Energy Agency, the expense of large-scale solar has fallen by 85 % previously decade, while wind power costs have fallen by about 50 %. The traditional assumption that fossil fuel electricity is cheaper is currently coming out, as is the proven fact that improved access is about centralised electricity grids.

Among it is the solar homes programme in Bangladesh, which extended electricity usage of 4 million homes (about 12 % of the population) by 2016. This provided much quicker access to services such as for example electric lighting than extending the centralised electricity grid could have done.

Similarly, off-grid solar systems now provide about 7 per cent of Rwanda’s population with usage of electricity. Several systems are large enough to power TVs and appliances in addition to lighting.

Of course, initiatives like these don’t completely solve the energy access problem. To supply the required power for industries and all domestic uses, renewables should be deployed at a much bigger scale. This involves investment in grid infrastructure, too. It’ll be vital that you avoid repeating the recent connection with Vietnam, where solar and wind investment increased rapidly, but many plants couldn’t operate fully as a result of grid constraints.

So what else needs to happen to make leapfrogging possible? It is crucial to recognise that a lot of low-income countries have suprisingly low emissions and their priority should be expanding energy systems to underpin monetary development and universal energy access. Fossil fuels shouldn’t be totally ruled out, but ought to 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 large scale-up of finance from donors to lessen the financial risks of adoption. Only then will low-income countries manage to leapfrog to cleaner energy.

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