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Renewable energy – the future for the developing world

Dieter Holm and Jennifer McIntosh

The International Solar Energy Society (ISES) continues to raise awareness of the global impact of climate change, and how renewables need to play a vital role – especially in developing countries. In this article, ISES offers a policy perspective after a number of successful workshops in Africa.

The majority of the global population lives in the developing world. It is in the direct global interest that the renewable energy transition be immediate, rapid and orderly, which requires shouldering the responsibility of both national policies and international cooperation.

It has often been stated that if the developing world were to follow the wasteful energy example set by some industrialised nations, the global impact would be devastating. The developing nations accuse the industrialised nations of destroying the environment by over-consumption, while the industrialised nations accuse the developing nations of destroying the environment by over-population. Both are right.

International Solar Energy Society (ISES) white paper

In 2003, ISES launched its first White Paper entitled ‘Transition to a Renewable Energy World’. Written by Dr Donald Aitkin of the USA, this paper serves to guide Governments – at all levels – through the policy measures and initiatives needed to steer a renewable energy (RE) transition. It makes clear that this transition – one that is critical for our continued, sustainable development – is an opportunity to be embraced, rather than a hurdle to be overcome.

After the success of the first White Paper, ISES recognised the need to expand upon the paper's policy guidelines and focus on the developing world. Thus a second white paper was commissioned and written by Professor Dieter Holm of South Africa. This publication, ‘Renewable Energy Future for the Developing World’, is intended to be a ready-to-use guide of national energy policy, and strategies for developing countries. It covers several topics including the technological status and potential of specific renewable energy sources; national and international drivers of renewable energy (RE) applications; and policies to accelerate the application of renewable energy in developing countries.

60% of the energy growth in the next few decades will take place in the developing world where about two billion people are living without access to electricity. The White Paper explores and discusses the developing world's fundamentally unique opportunity for investing their energy infrastructure in renewable energy sources.

Renewable energy is a ‘win-win’ solution for developing countries as they have an opportunity to carry out cutting-edge renewable energy growth policies, and bypass the out-dated fossil-fuel century's technology. Moreover, the developing world has vast amounts of untapped renewable resources, while very little is being harnessed. One obvious example is sunshine in Africa; an area with high solar radiation, yet limited use of solar energy technologies.

Transition required

Our current commercial energy system uses concentrated and finite resources. The technology to exploit these diminishing resources has become cheaper during the course of the last century through economies of scale, supported by government protection and infrastructure investments.

With solar energies, natural resources are diffuse, more evenly spread over the world and are freely available to all. However the capital costs of the technologies to harness the free energies are currently often a barrier because the economies of scale have generally not yet taken effect.

The pressing challenge and top priority for the human race is to move away from squandering the sun's stored energy by transitioning to the universal use of renewable energy from the sun.

Where does the developing world fit into the renewable energy transition?

As the world moves towards the global village in terms of modern communication, the sense of sharing one planet and concerns about our common future are increasing.

There are very pronounced dissimilarities between developing countries with respect to prosperity and stability. These dissimilarities are so large in the rate and direction of change that the term ‘developing countries’ becomes questionable.

However there are also similarities:

  • The economies of developing countries are heavily dependent on agriculture – often at the subsistence level, with mining where mineral resources have been explored. Beneficiation through secondary industries is rarely found, but tourism plays an important role;
  • Infrastructure is often basic, with a constraining scarcity of skills in engineering, and technical or professional skills to execute its design, building and maintenance.

It should be stressed that the developing world is not simply a poor man's version of the industrialised world. It is not a world predominantly driven by the belief in work ethic, entrepreneurship and personal responsibility or by the money value of time. It does not believe that all human issues can ultimately be solved in a technological manner. In general, women are the maintainers of traditional culture values where the welfare of the family in the household plays a central role.

The developing world does not necessarily have to follow the energy route of the industrialised nations, but can learn from their experience and mistakes. This insight opens up several unique opportunities for development. Combining the rapid advancement of renewable energy technologies in the industrialised world with the largely untapped renewable energy resources in the developing world, will demand concerted effort from both parties.

A global race towards renewable energy has already started. Some nations and some international corporations are positioning themselves to take advantage of the inevitable transition. There is no time to be lost, since the peak of oil production is most likely to occur within the current decade (Heinberg, 2003). The later the transition, the more painful and costly it will be.

The cycle of change in energy technologies has been shown to last about half a century, the time span of two human generations. That is the planning horizon of wise governments. Long-term thinking is what sets the true statesman apart from the mere politician.

Policies to accelerate the transition

Key stakeholders have to be aware of the interactions of energy with poverty, the environment and peace. Campaigns prioritising energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy need to be addressed by energy decision makers. Developing countries have specific policy priorities and options. After having assessed the national renewable and non-renewable energy resources, as well as the energy services needed – including the traditional ways of satisfying these needs – the following five categories of relevant policy mechanisms were identified:

Transparent, consistent, long-term renewable energy targets and regulatory frameworks.

This includes a pricing system, for example a grid-feeder law, creating an investor-friendly environment. Pricing systems such as feed-in laws have accounted for the most rapid and sustained market transformations, while creating employment and driving down the cost through technology advancement, economies of scale and cost-effective finance.

Another option is the Kyoto Protocol, which offers unique opportunities of integrating development and energy aims. A follow-up climate agreement to succeed Kyoto must address the situation of developing countries, and support clean technology transfer.

Orderly rural energisation should be implemented according to a long-term energy implementation plan based on energy needs and resources assessments. These should address:

  • The integration of cost-effective grid extension, and equitable access to renewable energy services in off-grid areas;
  • The support for development in production, health and education;

It has been found that the well-intended introduction of RE technologies – like PV in remote rural areas prior to the establishment of RE industries in relatively more affluent grid-connected areas – mostly led to faltering projects that stigmatised RE. Another pitfall is attempted micro-management by government.

Financial interventions and incentives

Governments have the power and obligation to build domestic energy facilities and jobs through renewable energy production payments, rebates, low-interest loans and guaranties fixed to technology standards. The playing field between entrenched fossil fuels and emergent renewable energies should be levelled.

Industry standards, planning permits and building codes (regulations)

Technology standards and certification, siting and permit standards, grid connection standards and building regulations are essential for promoting renewable energies.

Standards help not only to foster fair competition, but also to facilitate import and export. Moreover, proactive policies have been a major factor in reducing uncertainty as well as wasteful expenditure. Governments must also lead by example, for example as prominent owners of buildings and other energy consuming systems, utilising energy efficient measures and renewable energy technologies.

Education and information dissemination

Governments should allocate the greatest portion of public energy research, development and demonstration (RD&D) to energy efficiency and renewable energy, with special emphasis on the opportunities for technology leapfrogging – with respect to building new long-term infrastructures such as transport, buildings and distributed cogeneration.

Public ownership, cooperatives and stakeholders

The transition to sustainable energy systems needs to be understood and implemented on a broad community level. This requires the sustained participation of all key stakeholders, and direct involvement of the community in projects.

Active participation helps to foster commitment and pride in community projects – which in turn circumvents obstruction and vandalism: European farming communities run many successful wind energy initiatives, thereby creating a source of income. This model can be transferred to remote rural areas in the developing world.

Why it is essential to transform now

The key drivers of the transformation in the developing world are poverty eradication, risk avoidance and the protection of natural life-supporting systems. These concerns are shared with the industrialised world, but the priorities differ radically. In the developing world the most pressing issue of poverty overshadows other considerations.

Improved access to clean modern energy in developing countries is a fundamental step to poverty reduction, and a key to attaining the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. About 2.4 billion people, notably in rural areas of Asia and Africa, depend on traditional biomass in the form of firewood, charcoal, harvest residues and dung used for cooking and heating.

About 35% of the energy typically derives from these sources. In parts of Africa, it reaches 90%. As a rule, this biomass is burned with low efficiencies of only 10 to 15%, while high levels of indoor pollution from open fires lead to health problems of the people exposed, mostly women, children and the elderly.

According to the World Health Organisation, air pollutants and emissions from burning biomass and coal cause the death of 1.6 million people annually, significantly more than the number of deaths ascribed to malaria.

Women, who have to bear the household chores of firewood gathering, forfeit the opportunity of education and the potential of gainful employment. Better education of women and higher household incomes are powerful factors in the health of women, and stabilising the number of children born into the poverty trap. The unsustainable use of firewood is a contributing factor to desertification, which again accelerates the downward poverty spiral.

Poverty in rural areas hampers access to electricity that is associated with modern communication and information technology. It also constrains the productive application of energy, especially in the secondary and tertiary value adding sectors. Renewable energy has demonstrated that it delivers clean, sustainable and cost-effective energy services, providing a necessary – albeit insufficient – base for poverty reduction and development.

A rapid and sustained transformation to energy efficiency and renewable energy is an absolutely essential stabilising step towards development, and the improvement of quality of life.

Times of transition are always turbulent times. The most natural human reaction is to panic and cling to the habitual procrastinating in the fear of making the wrong decision. As the world transitions to the new era, it will not wait for the developing world to catch up. It is the choice of individuals, families, communities, companies and nations whether they want to be losers or winners in the dawning solar age.

About the authors

Professor Dieter Holm is the author of the ISES White Paper ‘Renewable Energy Future for the Developing World’.

Jennifer McIntosh is public relations and projects officer, International Solar Energy Society (ISES), International Solar Energy Society, Wiesentalstr. 5079115 Freiburg Germany, Tel: +49 761 45906-0, Fax: +49 761 45906-99 Email. 


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Policy, investment and markets  •  Solar electricity