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‘Leapfrogging’ to Renewable Power Can Deliver Low-Carbon Energy Equity Worldwide

Renewable technologies could help emerging economies achieve better and more equitable energy access—without adding to the world’s carbon emissions. 

“Instead of developing energy infrastructures based on fossil fuels, low-income countries could leapfrog straight to cleaner, low-carbon technologies,” writes New Scientist. “For low-income countries, making big improvements in access to electricity is crucial. Better access to energy is linked to improvements in education, economic development, and health, for example.”

Currently, Sustainable Energy for All estimates that “759 million people lack access to electricity and 2.6 billion people are unable to cook cleanly.” Expanding energy access can help improve education, economic development, and health, but developing countries have been limited in efforts to achieve these benefits without sufficient energy from fossil fuels.

But with many regions lacking any existing energy infrastructure at all, that gap opens the opportunity to embrace renewables.

It is not unprecedented for countries to sidestep earlier technological progressions of industrialized countries, New Scientist notes. Adopting recent advances in renewable power without first pursuing fossil fuels recalls similar developments in the telecommunications sector, where emergent nations bypassed landlines and jumped directly to widespread mobile phone use.

Declining costs in the renewable sector can help facilitate the same approach in energy.

“The conventional assumption that fossil fuel electricity is cheaper is now on its way out, as is the idea that improved access is all about centralized electricity grids,” writes New Scientist.

Bigger industrial users may need investments in grid infrastructure to fully expand renewable energy use, but the benefits of decentralized infrastructure are already showing up through projects in some countries. The Solar Homes program in Bangladesh, which supplied power to four million residential buildings, expanded access much more readily than extending a centralized electricity grid. Similarly, 7% of Rwanda’s population receives power from off-grid solar systems. 

But while renewable technologies can be an important element of a larger strategy to expand energy access, equity must remain the focus of energy projects, New Scientist stresses.

“It is crucial to recognize that most low-income countries have very low emissions and their priority has to be expanding energy systems to underpin economic development and universal energy access,” the news story notes. Key steps that can help developing countries prioritize renewable investments include facilitating low-carbon options though policies and regulations, and increased financing from donors to reduce risks.