Empowering the world's 'energy poor'

About 1.5 billion people are in the dark. A United Nations group wants governments and companies to team up to turn their lights on with clean electricity.

About 1.5 billion people have no access to electric power—whether clean, dirty or somewhere in between.  So in declaring it the "International Year of Sustainable Energy for All," the United Nations gave 2012 a very tall order. To help fill it, they're encouraging governments worldwide to join forces with the private sector.

At a UN Summit Meeting in New York yesterday, a group of 12 big electric companies announced plans to bring cleaner power to people living in far-flung, often off-grid places. In their report, the Global Sustainable Electricity Partnership (previously dubbed e8) laid out guidelines for creating private-public partnerships. They call for governments, private companies, academic institutions, international organizations and local communities to come together to develop energy projects with low-to-zero carbon emissions.

Where reliable sources of electricity are hard to come by, so are the standards of living that come with them. Without clean energy to cook meals, for instance, people burn wood, charcoal, peat and other biomass. They often do it indoors. Such daily doses of air pollution can lead to serious health problems, which cause a reported 2 million premature deaths each year, mostly women and children.

A recent related study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explored the strategy of analyzing satellite imagery of light bulbs glowing at night to assess an area's economic productivity. While the Yale economists concluded this wasn't the best way to gauge a nation's gross domestic product, they did find that night-time luminosity comes closer to indicating a region's socioeconomic standing when done in less developed areas.

According to the International Energy Agency, those less lit-up areas may remain so. If efforts to increase electricity's availability remain static, the agency estimates at least 1.4 billion will still be in the dark by 2030.

Chairman Michael Morris, the CEO of American Electric Power, says in a statement:

By the end of 2011, we will have met with energy and finance ministers from more than 50 countries and worked on policy changes they want to make to become more attractive to investors in electricity projects.

Strong synergies can result when power technologies that emit few or zero greenhouse gases are coupled with enabling public policies and financing. In addition to improving the lives and environment of people by supplying them with non-polluting electricity, the projects will also stimulate the growth of jobs in manufacturing and services.

The report demonstrates the benefits and pitfalls of private-public partnerships with examples, such as a 48-megawatt wind farm on a Brazilian sugar cane plantation (above) or a 40-kilowatt solar plant in Tuvalu.

What the group says is a model example is their work bringing various renewable energy options to two Patagonian villages in central Argentina. Cochico and Chorriaca currently have on-again, off-again relationships with their diesel generators, and when they do work correctly, the generators pollute the air around them. With private investments led by Duke Energy, the partnership is bringing an 86-kilowatt hydroelectric station to Cochico. On tap for the more remote Chorriaca is a hybrid system combining wind and diesel power.

The following are among the group's recommendations for private-public partnerships:

  • Choose technology that is appropriate for the location and its conditions
  • Develop national energy goals, supported by long-term policies and legislation. For investors, assure cost recovery and profit potential
  • Clearly define the partner roles, responsibilities and commitment
  • Stable and adequate funding for researching, testing, and deploying new technologies
  • Take measures to maximize the benefits of better electricity access for communities
  • Help optimize the private sector's ability to provide capital through many financing alternatives
  • Form strong relationships between the public and private sectors and other stakeholders
  • Secure income with power purchase agreements, offering the private sector greater certainty for long-term investment

Related on SmartPlanet:

Image: NASA,  Flickr/Ian Hampton, Pacific Hydro

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com


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