Access to energy sources constitutes one of the main causes of inequality between developed nations and the poorest regions in the planet. Alternatives such as photovoltaic or even wind power could be a proper option to bridge the gap. However, the lack of qualified staff, technology, and financial resources constitutes a threat to this possibility. Nevertheless, a window of opportunity emerges. How we decide to face it will be critical for the future of mankind.
Jose Luis is a student at the Jomakaba Yabanoko School, in the community of Makareo (Delta del Orinoco) near Venezuela’s exit to the Atlantic Ocean. It is an indigenous community called the warao. In spite of having been born in the 21st century, he is practically unfamiliar with electricity. Only the locals that have home fuel plants have the privilege of accessing this service. It seems like a paradox, considering the community is just 200 kilometers from the Guri, a large hydroelectric complex.
This situation can be seen, with some variations, in neighboring Brazil, as well as Mexico, Africa, and Asia. Isolated communities with no access to energy sources or basic technology.
The crazy thing is that, in light of the progress made with green energy, it is now easier (at least in theory) to get electricity to remote communities. Photovoltaic or wind sources, for instance, eliminate the need for colossal projects and large budgets to install power lines, thermoelectric or hydroelectric plants. Why is this relatively inexpensive, easy to install, low-impact, renewable, and efficient technology not widely used in sites where it is so needed?
A debt from the nations of the world
It has been four years since the United Nations approved the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, which has 17 goals that range from eliminating poverty to fighting climate change, education, gender equality, the environment, and urban design. The energy transition is also a critical factor.
More than 3 billion people, mostly from Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, use polluting fuels and inefficient technologies to cook.
What do we need?
On one hand, it is necessary to increase international cooperation to facilitate access to clean energy research and technology, which includes renewable sources, energy efficiency, and advanced technology that is less polluting than fossil fuels. Additionally, it is also important to promote investment in energy infrastructure and clean technologies.
Financing, education, and political will stand out as basic requirements. It is worth analyzing each one by one.
Indeed, the gap between the rich and the poor becomes a vicious cycle. Limited access to financial resources reduces the possibilities to undertake plans that make way for economic growth.
In countries where poverty and lack of resources force people to prioritize, technological projects (including in the energy and environmental sector) are frequently left behind. Nonetheless, while this constitutes an obstacle, it is not an insurmountable barrier, especially considering that renewable energies offer a broad range of low-cost options. On the other hand, access to these sources would help reduce poverty, thus turning a vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle.
Creativity is a good way to approach the problem. A good example is Colibrí, an entrepreneurship developed in Nicaragua through Tecnosol, a local energy company.
Colibrí acelera la transición a energía renovable… y queremos aumentar TU poder adquisitivo!
— Colibrí (@Colibri_Global) April 19, 2018
The company partnered with the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) to promote a viable business model. The program proposes granting low income communities limited access to energy networks by providing long-term financing to purchase solar panels.
The initiative has managed to install more than 45,000 solar panels, saving 11 million liters of kerosene and preventing the emission of 26,000 tons of CO2. The firm operates 17 rural branches and is expanding to Honduras and El Salvador.
This is not a unique case
Another remarkable example is Iluméxico. In 2009, a team of eight electric engineers led by Manuel Wiechers had the idea of using renewable power as their main tool to improve living conditions for marginalized communities in Mexico.
— iluméxico (@ilumexico) April 20, 2018
Estimates indicate that more than half a million families in Mexico depend on candles and diesel for illumination in rural communities.
To date, the Mexican company has benefitted more than 18,000 people in 254 villages by installing over 3,000 equipment. This has helped prevent the emission of approximately 1,940 tons of CO2.
It is not all about money. The case of Venezuela, where remote areas lack energy services, is a good example of this. While the South American country is currently in the public eye for navigating a humanitarian crisis, not so long ago this OPEC member was known for its huge oil potential and economic solvency.
However, while this privileged situation allowed making remarkable advances in terms of infrastructure, access to certain services (such as electricity) was limited, inefficient or non-existing, especially in remote areas. Other countries in the region are going through similar situations. If it is not a matter of financial resources, what is going on? In reality, it is a multifactorial issue, but it can be summarized as a lack of planning.
Education is essential
But financial resources and political will are not enough. It is essential to have the human resources capable to undertake and participate.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, even though renewable energies could be the solution for the over 600 million people with no access to electricity, there is a shortage of workers trained to install and maintain solar, wind, and other clean energy systems.
The Powering Jobs campaign – launched in late 2018 – aimed to train a million people worldwide by 2025, in order to meet the demand for workers specialized in renewable power.
Overall improvement of the quality of life
Programs focused on inclusion in energy access would be centered on key aspects such as water availability, job sources, education, and improvement in food distribution and quality, to name a few.
For example, millions of small farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa have inadequate access to sustainable and consistent water sources. These people suffer from the lack of rainfall during the dry season and uncertain precipitation during the rest of the year. While the majority has access to water in their area, they face the challenge of inadequate information and also a lack of financial resources to pay for the high upfront costs of a reliable irrigation system.
The solution came from Sunny Irrigation, a company focused on alternative energies that created a state-of-the-art solar water pump that is affordable and portable.
The firm’s strategy is based on the premise that a solar-powered irrigation system will enable farmers to increase crop yield and generate higher revenue.
Sunny Irrigation estimates that there is a potential market of more than 10 million small farmers in Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya. The latter already launched a pilot program under a local business development team.
Food grows where water flows
(setup credit: Davis&Shirtliff) pic.twitter.com/l41lY6SBN4
— SunnyIrrigation (@SunnyIrrigation) March 22, 2019
A future yet to be unveiled
This is just an example of how better and more inclusive access to energy can impact a crucial aspect, such as agriculture and, with it, nutrition.
The solutions are on the table. That new technologies further open the gap between the rich and the poor or if, on the contrary, they contribute to build a more equitable world will depend on the actions taken by the international community, governments, and companies.
For more information, check Energía16