Let There Be Light
On November 2, 2014, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its “Synthesis Report” outlining the most current expert consensus on climate change and its consequences. The report also presents a roadmap for policymakers to “finally reverse course on climate change.” Climatologists and the scientific community at large have long agreed that man-made climate disruptions pose a huge risk for ecosystems and global economies over the next century; the same cannot be said for their counterparts in national governments tasked with re-shaping industrial development while maintaining economic growth. One thing policymakers have agreed on is that any inevitable rise in global temperature should be limited to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6°F). The mark hasn’t yet been hit, but we’re more than halfway there and the chances of capping emissions enough to stay under 2 degrees are effectively nil. Current projections have us on track for a four to six degree increase by the end of the century—that’s almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit. Bill McKibben, the world’s leading activist on climate change, says this “would create a planet straight out of science fiction.” Meanwhile, The Pentagon warns that climate change poses an immediate threat to national security with heightened risks from terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty, and food shortages. The World Bank, for its part, goes on to say that a rise in temperatures of this magnitude can, and must be avoided. “Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today,” says World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim. “Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development, and we need to assume the moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest.”
Cooperative action towards the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change has mostly been stymied by an ongoing quarrel between who should bear the burden of financing monumental shifts towards a world of renewable energy. Effectively, it’s the Global North, the developed nations almost entirely responsible for emissions-driven warming, versus the Global South, emerging economies that are keen to fire up national prosperity on coal, oil, and gas. The latter share the least blame, have the most to lose, and are expected to get hit the hardest.
The Global Carbon Project estimates that, as of today, the United States and Europe are responsible for 49 percent of the extra carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted into the atmosphere since 1870. Rich nations argue that they’ve made strides in recent years to reduce emissions while, in the meantime, countries like China and India are emitting more than ever with no end in sight. Since 1990, China has been responsible for 20 percent of the cumulative emissions in the atmosphere, which is more than Europe’s 14 percent and on pace with the U.S. Of course, China’s 1.3 billion people dwarfs the U.S. population of 300 million (i.e. per capita emissions matter). Today, developing countries produce 58 percent of the world’s annual CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, emissions across the developed world are slowly falling. That’s in part due to the plummeting cost of solar, emissions regulations, and carbon trading schemes. But don’t pat yourself on the back just yet. Most of the reductions are more likely due to the “outsourcing” of our emissions via the global supply chain. Take an H&M sweater for example: designed in Sweden, manufactured in Bangladesh, and shipped across the planet to be sold at a mall in suburban St. Louis—who’s to blame for the emissions along the way?
In their latest report, the IPCC urges lawmakers to shed fossil fuel investment by some 20 percent while tripling, even quadrupling the share of clean energy. Today, only about 13 percent of the world’s energy comes from low carbon alternatives like wind, solar, nuclear, biomass, or hydroelectric. At next year’s Climate Conference in Paris, the U.N. is determined to come away with an agreement with “legal force” that commits all nations to reductions in greenhouse gases.
The question remains as how to foster economic growth in the developing world without creating an existential reliance on fossil fuels. To achieve these goals, the Global North could provide climate change mitigation and adaptation financing along with green technology transfer to provide the knowhow and infrastructure to create a new economy in the South. Such a mechanism exists through the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund in which the developed world has pledged to the developing $100 billion per year in aid by 2020. But so far, only a small fraction of that money has been delivered, and many still wonder where, exactly, those funds would go.
One promising initiative that could shed light on a way forward towards proactive green development is Dharnai Live, a pilot program by Greenpeace India that has single-handedly lit up an entire community. By offering a decentralized solar solution where the national government’s fossil fuel-powered central grid has failed, Dharnai Live offers a blueprint of how the rich world can encourage clean, economically viable, and community-based projects to those around the world who need it most.
Dharnai village is settled in Bihar state, one of India’s poorest where, as recently as 2011, 83 percent of households were without access to electricity. Thanks to government neglect, Dharnai had until very recently been cut off from India’s central grid, leaving residents in the dark for the last three decades. While the village has no intentions to juice up like Times Square, the arcadian community, home to just a couple thousand people, has a substantial and growing energy demand. Power needs come mostly from agriculture irrigation, but as the nation’s economy continues to blossom, a growing middle class will, like us, want to illuminate their homes and power-up consumer technologies like mobile phones—already ubiquitous across India. And electricity offers more than simply lighting up a room. According to the World Health Organization, around 3 billion people—almost half the world’s population—cook and heat their homes using open fires and simple stoves burning biomass or coal. The W.H.O. estimates that this leads to the premature death of more than 4 million people—half of whom are younger than 5 years old—due to household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels. Clean alternatives go beyond ideas of luxury; this is a human rights issue.
Manish Ram, a renewable energy analyst at Greenpeace India, has been working in Bihar state for the last five years to lobby the government on the need for decentralized, renewable energy. Ram argues that solar microgrids offer a solution as demand-driven electrification that can be tailored according to local needs and scaled to local requirements. “Distributed microgrids that use locally abundant fuel sources (hydro, solar, biomass) represent a potentially significant alternative to the centralized grid as they are capable of delivering reliable, consistent service where the latter cannot,” says Ram. Microgrids can be designed to meet the specific power needs of different populations on a variety of scales. “They are an inclusive solution to meet the needs of diverse economic segments.”
Microgrids shift the financial burden away from low-income consumers in rural communities. Customers access electricity as part of an ongoing service agreement with the microgrid operator; subscribers make small recurring payments that better match their limited, inconsistent cash flows. This means little to no upfront investment is required, which historically has been a sizeable barrier to entry in shifting towards solar. The startup costs in this case were funded by Greenpeace India with money raised from individual donors across the country. With the success of Dharnai Live, Greenpeace hopes to convince the Bihar government to allocate a larger share of the state budget to microgrid solar initiatives. Likewise, the pilot program could act as a model of how the Global North could provide financing and resources for sustainable development—not through one-size-fits-all economic imperialism but tailored community-based action.
Running a village on solar doesn’t come without its limitations. The system is designed for some load variations and it can run on stored power for about a day, but when clouds block the sunlight or dense winter fog lingers, the system may not offer total power. Practical ways to store solar-generated electricity is probably the single biggest challenge for any solar project, be it in northwest India or southern California. Dharnai Live managers work with local customers to maximize efficiency during power disruptions and, in cases of extreme weather, customers are not charged for their energy usage. “The community is well informed about solar and its limitations during cloudy weather,” Ram assures.
Currently, solar provides less than one percent of energy capacity worldwide, but a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) says solar energy could quite possibly be the world’s biggest single source of electricity by 2050. “The rapid cost decrease of photovoltaic modules and systems in the last few years has opened new perspectives for using solar energy as a major source of electricity in the coming years and decades,” says IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. There’s good reason to believe that solar power generation will indeed be the go-to energy source of the future. Why? Because unlike fuel, solar is a technology that, as with most technologies, sees increasing efficiency and falling prices as time goes on. The price to tap into Earth’s limited fossil fuels reserves, on the other hand, tends to go the opposite direction over the long-run.
While there are certainly challenges ahead, Greenpeace insists that projects like Dharnai Live are scalable. The operation and management model can vary according to local conditions but, “from a technical point of view a bottom up approach to build energy infrastructure is more efficient,” says Manish Ram, who remains enthused. His WILD Wish is to see the installation of 10,000 microgrids across Bihar in the next three years.
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