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Look Before You Leap: Things to watch out for while attempting energy leapfrogging

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By Vasanth Seshadri

· 5 min read

In 2014, the remote eastern Indian village of Dharnai became an unlikely poster-child of sustainability when Greenpeace provided it with a solar micro-grid. Disconnected from the national grid for decades, this enabled Dharnai to explore a source of power other than wood, charcoal and biomass. With not a fossil fuel in sight. International media was glowing in appreciation of this development.

However, the on-ground realities were more sobering. Power from the solar micro-grid was quickly guzzled up by energy-intensive appliances such as refrigerators and televisions, often leaving homes with no energy for lamps. The more affluent parts of the village were guilty of most of this guzzling, leaving the less affluent parts in darkness. There was an anecdote of a boy who typically studied in the early mornings before leaving to work in the farms, but was no longer able to study because the one lamp in the house no longer had any power to keep it on.

When then-Chief Minister of Bihar state, Nitish Kumar, visited the village a month later for what was meant to be a victory lap, he was met with protesting villagers demanding “real electricity”, an insulting insinuation that solar power was “fake electricity”.

Within months, the solar experiment was jettisoned, Dharnai was connected to the national grid and reliable electricity was provided. The downside: yet another village became dependent on fossil fuels.

This is an inconvenient reminder that energy leapfrogging is not the panacea we often think it is.

What is energy leapfrogging? A supposition that parts of the world that missed the fossil fuels revolution don’t need it. That they can jump (or leapfrog) directly from wood-charcoal-biomass to renewables like solar, wind and hydropower. This is a concept originally gleaned from telecommunications, claiming that parts of the world that missed the landline revolution can leapfrog it and embrace the mobile revolution directly.

Energy leapfrogging was widely embraced as a silver bullet a few years ago and the success stories started piling up. Kenya’s solar micro-grid successes were a big part of US President Barack Obama’s discussions with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta when the former visited Kenya in 2015. Bangladesh’s solar homes project provided electricity access to 4 million homes in 2016.

But as the Dharnai example shows, leapfrogging has run into some limitations.

Firstly, renewables have an often-cited disadvantage of being time-bound. The sun doesn’t shine all the time. The wind doesn’t blow all the time. Better storage technologies need to be invented to resolve this, and it’s easier said than done.

Secondly, a huge investment (e.g. a huge area of solar panels) is needed to generate enough power for agricultural and industrial use, which are pillars of economic development. Not to mention the power-thirsty appliances like air-conditioners and refrigerators without which no modern city can exist. The Benban Solar Farm in Egypt spans over 37 square kilometers (large enough to be seen from outer space) but can power only 420,000 Egyptian homes, a small fraction of the country’s 102 million people.

It’s not fair to expect emerging nations to sacrifice economic development for the sake of sustainability after developed nations achieved such development precisely by generating huge quantities of energy. It would be a case of the first people who reached the top kicking the ladder away so that others cannot climb it. So, given that economic development of emerging nations is a moral imperative, and also given that renewables-driven economic development requires huge economic resources, you need to ask whether these emerging nations have the resources. Can they afford to set aside thousands of square kilometers of their land for massive solar farms and wind farms?

Thirdly, even if yield and storage are improved significantly through new innovation, it’s possible that the increased availability of energy may inspire more energy-intensive usage of energy (e.g. more homes in emerging markets may start purchasing air-conditioners, refrigerators and electric stoves) and this brings us back to square one in terms of energy demand and supply.

Fourthly, at the moment, renewables are still more expensive than fossil fuels, making them prohibitive for many emerging markets. In 2018, the Fiji government partnered with a Japanese company to provide off-grid solar power to the village of Naceva. Only 15 of the 42 households participated because the installation fee (about US$50) was too high.

Thankfully, this is the limitation that’s easiest to solve. Every new technology goes through a typical process of evolution in which it’s initially more expensive than its predecessors, but consistent innovation leads to its costs eventually dipping below those of its predecessors, incentivizing more people to embrace the new technology and ultimately leading to its mainstreaming.

None of the challenges I’ve outlined above are meant to be justifications to avoid renewables or delay their rollout. They are meant to be a realistic portrayal of the challenges that lie ahead, waiting for our ingenuity to solve them. Expecting emerging nations to respond to these challenges by limiting their industrial or agricultural progress is a new form of colonial thinking considering that developed nations never faced such challenges when they developed. Working with emerging nations to alleviate these challenges should be the approach of developed nations.

As for the emerging nations themselves, incentivizing innovation and entrepreneurship among their hungry, young and talented citizens will unleash extraordinary abilities and innovation, ultimately solving the climate crisis and showing the rest of the world how it’s done.

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Vasanth Seshadri runs the Singapore-based creative agency The Sunny Side. He is the author of the sustainability-themed novel The People from Beyond the Mountains.

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