Emerging Economies Find Distributed Generation Solar A Perfect Fit


As developing nations build their energy infrastructures, many are turning to renewables instead of traditional fossil fuel technologies. That's according to a new report from the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Charitable Trusts.

The report, using data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, examined clean energy investment in countries that are outside the Group of 20 (G-20) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

According to the Pew report, 100 nations outside of the G-20 and OECD attracted a total of $62 billion in clean energy investment from 2009 to 2013. Almost half (45 %) of the investment – $27.9 billion – occurred in 10 emerging markets: Thailand, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Kenya, Peru, Taiwan, Morocco, Vietnam, Pakistan and the Philippines. In these countries, clean energy capacity grew by 91% over the period in question – three times faster than any other generation option.
Phyllis Cuttino, director of Pew's clean energy initiative, notes that emerging nations are building renewable capacity instead of conventional fossil fuel-based energy for three main reasons.

Some of these nations want energy security and build renewables so they can produce electricity with their own sources.

Others see the economic advantage of renewables as they work to diminish energy poverty. Solar, for example, is becoming cost-competitive with conventional energy and that can help countries where large segments of the population have no access to electricity.

The third reason is environmental. Instead of building large utility-based fossil fuel plants that require costly maintenance and fuel, these countries are investing in systems that feature distributed, non-polluting energy.

According to Cuttino, the primary motivating factor in a particular country depends on its circumstances. ‘If you are Ukraine or Bulgaria, you have one motivation: security,’ she says. ‘If you are Kenya or the Philippines, places where electricity prices are high, you want the cheapest and best option.’

The Pew report noted that the top 10 emerging markets have installed various types of renewable energy sources. Solar technologies led all sectors over the five-year period, attracting $12 billion, which is equal to 43% of total clean energy investments. Six of the top 10 countries added a total of 3 GW of solar generation during that time. Much of the solar development was in Bulgaria (955 MW), Thailand (808 MW) and Ukraine (780 MW).

Wind registered the second-largest amount with $7.7 billion, which is equal to 28% of total clean energy investment. Cuttino points out that wind power is mostly driven by utilities because of the large capital expense and the large structures.

Solar, by contrast, is more suitable for development as a distributed energy source. ‘If you are in Kenya and you have no access to electricity and you put a panel on your home, suddenly you or your community has access to electricity,’ she says. ‘That demand to address energy poverty is a huge driving force.’

The developing nations also added biomass, geothermal or small hydropower projects. Seven countries added large hydropower projects, five countries added fossil fuel technologies, and one country built more nuclear power.

‘In some of these cases where you are trying to address energy poverty, when such a small portion of the population has access to electricity, you are going to try a lot of things,’ Cuttino says.

The Pew report also predicted that clean energy will play an important role in meeting the energy needs of emerging countries. From 2013 until 2030, more than 5,570 GW of electricity capacity may be added globally. Of that, 54% are forecast to be renewable technologies. National or regional policies are likely to determine which technologies have an edge in particular economies.

‘Long-term policy, such as a mandate, renewables target or feed-in tariff, is what encourages private investment,’ she says.

It also helps to have training programs in some emerging nations. Anaheim, Calif.-based MK Battery, which makes Deka Solar batteries, is helping to provide classes with solar power in some sub-Saharan countries.

Solar can solve certain problems in these regions, says Bruce Habeck, global director of MK Battery's renewable energy business. ‘They have a huge infrastructure problem,’ he says. ‘The bulk of the countries in Africa have the power going out 10 to 12 times a day.’

The company is working with African Energy, a wholesale distributor of solar components for Africa, to offer training in planning, installation and tilt angles. Students – mostly installers, technicians and engineers – receive certificates when they complete the course.

Habeck says students learn how to design a system that includes a battery and how to decide where to place the array so that it is protected from dirt, dust and the region's seasonal rains. ‘Many areas are very economically depressed and don't have power at all – so solar gives them the opportunity to put in a small module and battery,’ he says. ‘They can charge their cell phones. Everybody has a cell phone.’

Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.

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