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New Internationalist Issue 284


[image, unknown] New Internationalist Issue 284

Illustration by POLYP. Why make the same old mistakes? Many people in the 'Majority World' are 'leapfrogging' - going straight for sustainable, renewable energy technologies rather than down those well-trodden but dirty paths of coal, oil, gas and nuclear.

Renewable energy technologies are driven by the natural energy flows of the planet. They do not deplete the world's finite energy resources and sensibly used don't risk destroying the environment.

The flow of power
A lightbulb swings above Juan and José as they do their homework. 'They have a chance of a good education now,' says their grandmother, Maria. 'They have a future.'

For six months of the year the Andean village of Chalán in Northern Peru is cut off from the nearest town, Celendín. Candles are expensive so villagers used to go to bed when it got dark. Now all that has changed, thanks to the village's new micro-hydro scheme.

Hydroelectric power is a dirty word in more enlightened development circles. But on a small scale it's quite another matter. Nearly everyone in the village was involved in building their micro-hydro scheme, with help from the UK-based development agency Intermediate Technology. And the power goes directly to homes, school, workshops, the health clinic, even to the local dentist. He says his running costs have dropped by 90 per cent! Anticipating the demand that the Chalán example would generate in the surrounding area, Intermediate Technology has funded a workshop in the town of Cajamarca to make the turbines and equipment necessary for micro-hydro schemes.

Micro-hydro is bringing change to other parts of the world too. In the Himalayas, the Hilly Hydro Project has ingeniously gained World Bank funding. In view of the World Bank's famed preference for mega-schemes, hundreds of separate, environmentally-friendly, micro-schemes have been packaged to look like one big project. The micro-hydros will bring power to remote mountain communities and relieve the pressure on firewood in an area which is being rapidly deforested.2
The light of life
The sun can be a problem in the arid parts of Africa - but it is being turned into a solution. Keeping vaccines cool in remote rural areas without electricity has been a major headache for health workers on the continent, especially those involved in the World Health Organization (WHO) immunization program. But today in Eritrea, Zaire, Sudan, Uganda and other African countries it is increasingly common to see solar-panels on the roofs of health clinics in even the most remote villages. The sun is being used to run refrigerators, to sterilize operating instruments, and provide lighting after dark.

Until recently most villages on the African continent were without access - or with only interrupted access - to electricity from a national grid and were forced to rely on diesel- fuelled electricity generators. But this is expensive and the supply of diesel is not always reliable - as the Eritreans discovered during their war with Ethiopia in the 1980s. Ethiopian pilots regularly strafed Eritrean fuel supplies from the air. At that time a group of Eritreans came to a small alternative-technology company called Dulas in North Wales and asked them to devise a solar cooling system. They designed a solar-powered refrigerator which has since won WHO approval and can now be found in many parts of Africa.

In Bulape - a remote village in Northern Zaire - health workers are finding the solar power they use for sterilizing their operating instruments has spin-off benefits. They can also make distilled water with it and use the stream this generates for cooking. All this in a village so inaccessible that all solar equipment had to be carried 40 miles by people on foot.4
Hi-tech nomads
Have yurt, yak, solar panel; can travel. Mongolian nomads are attaching a new feature to their yurts (or tents) these day - photovoltaic cells. Solar technology is actually ideally suited to a nomadic lifestyle. Mongolian nomads, who constitute nearly half the country's population, move their tents (yurts or gers) about 30 times a year, covering vast distances with their herds of horses, yaks, goats, sheep and camels. Solar panels can be set up and function anywhere - providing there is sun. Not a problem in a land with an average 300 sunny days a year.

When the sun doesn't shine, temperatures can drop as low as minus 30 centigrade. But, as though to compensate for this, photovoltaic cells work even better in extreme cold, and the snow reflects additional light.

Traditionally, rural families have depended on wood fuel or animal dung and candles for all their cooking, heating and lighting needs. Now renewable energy is the centrepiece of the Mongolian Government's strategy to bring electricity to rural families, and so slow down the drift from highlands to cities. A single 40-60-watt solar module can provide a nomadic family with five hours light, four hours television, and fifteen hours radio per day. Several hundred photovoltaic systems have now been installed in the country. In the capital Ulan Bator, the Research and Production Corporation for Renewable Energy has been busy assembling and distributing these systems - which come from Europe, the US and China - and evaluating their performance. The Mongolian Institute of Physics and Technology, meanwhile, is pursuing a photovoltaic research programme of its own.1
Potent rubbish
Respect the dung, the chaff and the refuse heap. They may be sources of light, warmth and livelihood. In the village of Pura, in the South Indian state of Karnataka, local people are making use of refuse to generate electricity for their homes, bring water to their taps and to make a first grade fertilizer for their market gardens.

Before 1987 the village was connected to the state grid, but few households could afford the electricity. This is the case in most Indian villagers, where only about a fifth of households are rich enough to be connected. Then came the biogas plant. The beauty of it is that it is community-owned and controlled and produces electricity so cheap that anyone can use it. Furthermore, maintaining and supplying the plant provides jobs for local people.

The design of the plant is simple and it can be made from local materials, consisting of an inverted drum which digests animal and agricultural wastes. This produces a gas: 60-per-cent methane and 40- per-cent carbon dioxide, which is used to fuel engines that in turn drive generators to produce electricity. Villagers are provided with electricity in their homes and water pumped to various points around the village, considerably reducing the traditional burden of work for village women. Another part of the plant produces a high-quality, odourless manure fertilizer. The Pura example is one of a wide variety of low-cost biogas plants that exist throughout the Indian subcontinent.

Small biogas plants are also common in China. There they acquired an unpleasant reputation during the 1960s due to leakage caused by poor construction. But this has been improved and they are becoming more common again, especially in the south and west.3
Blowing in the wind
Windpower is taking off in China - and it's good news for the rest of the world. The most populous nation in the world relies overwhelmingly on coal-fired power plants, which has sent pollution levels soaring over the country's industrial regions. But 120 million Chinese living in more remote areas, are still beyond the reach of the national power grid. Now there are plans to promote windpower in these regions. China already has 130,000 small- and medium-sized wind-driven generators and four major windpower stations. Officials say windpower will play an important role in China's effort to distribute power across the country. It makes both economic and ecological sense. Windpower demands less investment and has far more flexibility in operation. The energy ministry has worked out an ambitious plan that will pump up the total capacity of wind-driven generators to a million kilowatts by the end of the century and to eight million kilowatts by 2020. Wind-powered pumps are also being used extensively in Africa for irrigation purposes.5
Troubles with alcohol
Brazil provided one of the most grand and daring forays into the field of renewable energy. In 1975 it launched its Pro-alcool program aimed at switching all motor vehicles to ethanol made from sugar cane instead of petroleum. By 1980 production of gasoline-only vehicles had been halted and had been replaced either by neat alcohol engines or gasohol engines burning a mixture of 78-per-cent gasoline and 22-per-cent ethanol. Ethanol is far less polluting than oil and air quality in cities like São Paulo improved markedly. It also made Brazil less dependent on the import of foreign oil and so had a positive impact on the balance of payments. However, in recent years the program has suffered serious setbacks as a result of depressed oil prices, an increase in the production of domestic oil and the failure of growers, distillers and government to agree on a fair price for ethanol. A salutary reminder that powerful lobbies and conflicting economic interests can tear apart some of the best-laid schemes. But the Brazilian program has paved the way for similar, albeit more modest, schemes in other countries such as Zimbabwe.6
Getting the law-makers on board
India is going through something of a 'renewable energy boom'. Scientists and environmentalists are lobbying hard to get one of the most progressive pieces of energy legislation in the world through Parliament. The draft law - which was close to being passed before the Government changed earlier this year - proposes:
  • mandating the use of solar water- heating in public buildings and the use of passive solar techniques in the design of new buildings.
  • levying taxes on all private conventional power to fund research and
    development work in conservation and decentralized power generation.
  • giving priority to rural energy
    programs based on renewables, with financial incentives to encourage decentralized projects.

Solar, wind, small hydro and biomass projects are popping up at an extraordinary rate in India, many the result of international collaboration. But fossil-fuel power-plant emissions are expected to increase dramatically. If renewables do not kick in as a major source, Asia will easily surpass all of Europe and the US in sulphur dioxide emissions by the year 2000.7

1 Anthony Derrick, IT-Power. E-mail: [email protected] and Dr Chadraa Battaryn at the Institute of Renewable Energy (IRE), PO Box 52/40, 210152 Ulan Bator, Mongolia.Tel/Fax: 976 1 342377
2 Steve Fisher and Olly Paish, IT Power.
3 P Rajabapaiah, S Jayajumar, Amulya KN Reddy in Renewable Energy ed. Thomas B Johansson et al.
4 Dulas Engineering, Machynlleth, Wales., UK and IT-Power.
5 d+c Germany, March and April 1996.
6 José Goldemburg, Lourival C Monaco, Isaias Macedo in Renewable Energy ed. Thomas B Johansson et al. and Renewable Energy: Power for a Sustainable Future ed. Godfrey Boyle.
7 Dr P Venkata Ramana, TERI India, e-mail [email protected] and Dr V Bakthavatsalam, Indian Renewable Development Agency.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

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