Clean Energy: A Tangible Dream and The Way Forward

Post World War II, countries have rapidly shifted towards industrialisation, which led to urbanisation. This trend has increased energy consumption globally, it has become the benchmark to gauge the development achievements of a country. As a direct consequence, many calamities took rise due to the increase in the Earth’s temperature. The turn of the decade has therefore witnessed heavy investment by nations in growth and development

Electricity production is cited as the main cause of global warming, accounting for a large share of global carbon emissions. The sources of production are non-renewable such as coal, oil, and natural gas, contributing to one-third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In Urban Energy Transition: From Fossil Fuels to Renewable Power, it was stated that by  2030, global energy demands are expected to increase by 60% to 80%. According to the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommendations, if we are to limit global warming to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, we cannot exceed atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration level of 450 parts per million (ppm). Therefore,  global initiatives are being taken to minimise carbon emissions and the impacts of climate change.  

To reduce the impact of carbon emissions on the environment it is imperative to adopt clean and renewable energy sources. The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 7) is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all. Renewable sources of energy are available in every nation and are abundant in nature, therefore, making it easier for adoption. Moreover, the increase in the adoption of electricity generation from renewable sources has helped nations at all social,  economic, and political levels.

Local Level  

  • Societies are getting benefits from municipal and community-owned renewable energy schemes as citizens, social entrepreneurs, and community organisations participate directly in the energy transition through investing in, producing, selling, and distributing renewable energy or delivering energy services. For example, in India, the village of Odanthurai has been investing in renewable energy since 2005 and has installed 65 solar street lights, a biomass gasifier to pump drinking water, and a 350 KW wind turbine. It creates a power surplus that allows the village to sell excess power back to the state electricity board and raise revenues.  
  • In such schemes, the centralised nature of power is decentralised, giving end-users more control over the whole system which enables them to choose the technologies and resources used, and to keep investments local. For example, a US National Renewable Energy Laboratory report showed a decentralised biomass energy system can use a variety of waste streams and reduce landfills.
  • Local governments also benefit from clean energy mostly in the form of property and income taxes and other payments from renewable energy project owners. Owners of the land on which renewable energy projects are built often receive lease payments and also earn royalties based on the project’s annual revenue.   

National Level

  • Renewable energy creates new and more jobs in the industry. For instance, in 2016, the wind energy industry of the United States directly employed over 100,000 full-time-equivalent employees in a variety of capacities, including manufacturing, project development, construction, and turbine installation, operations and maintenance, transportation and logistics, and financial, legal, and consulting services. In addition to the jobs directly created in the renewable energy industry, growth in clean energy creates positive economic ‘ripple’ effects. For example, industries in the renewable energy supply chain will benefit, and unrelated local businesses will benefit from increased household and business incomes.     
  • Supports long-term sustainable development in countries which are highly dependent on fuel imports.

Political Level

  • The trade-in electricity between countries is less prone to political tension than trade involving oil and gas. For example, China is the world’s largest consumer of energy. It has heavily relied on imported coal and oil from other nations, especially the US. This escalated trade tensions between the US and China. Thus, China has shifted its energy needs with sustainable alternatives. A 2012 white paper on China’s energy policy highlighted the need to “vigorously develop new and renewable energy”. Also, the U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change of 2014 emphasised the importance of strengthening bilateral cooperation on climate change. This resulted in China becoming the world’s largest market and investor of renewable and clean energy. Contrastingly in Pakistan, the increase in energy demand had forced it to import oil and gas from U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia. Although Pakistan has a very good location for generating solar and wind power, the main problem to generate power is the lack of funding. 
  • The concept of clean energy is adopted in many different countries to achieve a sustainable future. China, the United States, Brazil, India, and Germany have the biggest renewable power capacity worldwide, but these countries are also the biggest energy consumers.  
Figure: Renewable Energy Capacity Ranking 2019

A huge question for modern city authorities is: How can electrical infrastructure be developed in a way that supports economic growth and ensures a high quality-of-life while also integrating more renewable energy sources than ever before? Therefore,  reducing the impact of cities on the environment. Is it possible for cities to shift to a 100% renewable source of energy?  

To answer this question, Iceland and Costa Rica have set a fascinating example. Today, in  Iceland and Costa Rica, 100 % and 99% of electricity respectively are derived from renewable resources. Iceland is often known as the land of fire and ice is a small country with a population of 357,000 people.  It has a mixture of both geothermal and hydropower sources. These green energy sources largely power Iceland’s economy, ranging from a provision of heat and electricity for single-family homes to meeting the needs of energy-intensive industries. Today, Iceland is a  strong example of how renewable energy can power a modern economy, however, this was not always the case. For centuries utilization of geothermal and hydropower resources was limited to washing and bathing. In fact, until the early 1970s, the largest share of the country’s energy consumption was derived from imported fossil fuels. Soon the country could not sustain oil price fluctuations occurring due to several crises affecting the world energy market.  Thus, it required a stable and economically feasible domestic energy resource.  

The initial challenging steps towards Iceland’s renewable developments, both for geothermal and hydropower were taken by the local entrepreneurs. In the early 20th century, farmers found a  way to use hot water seeping out of the ground to develop a primitive geothermal system for their farms. Municipalities gradually built on their success leading to a more systematic exploration of geothermal resources. As a result, new industries were lured to Iceland and diversified its economy, created new jobs, and established a nationwide power grid. 

Likewise, Costa Rica is also an outstanding example of a country with universal public service delivery as it has extended electricity services to all social groups and every region of the country. While taking full account of the need, quality, affordability, and environmental sustainability. In 2016, the country generated 97% of electricity from renewable resources of which 65% is from hydropower, 16% from wind, 14% from geothermal, 2% from biomass, and 0.02% from solar. The country just covers 3% of the thermal power plant which uses fossil fuels only as a backup for electricity generation. The country can achieve this because of rural electrification. Public pressure for better performance by the private companies and a much faster pace of rural electrification encouraged the government to seek ways to initiate rural electrification programmes.  Now in almost rural areas, the electricity is supplied by the rural electric cooperatives which are owned and operated by energy users and community members. 

Both Iceland and Costa Rica are inspirational story and the dream of relying on 100% clean energy is not a dream anymore. They have set a sustainable model for the world. However, the transition model adopted by Iceland for geothermal and hydropower energy and by Costa Rica for its renewable energy sources doesn’t need to be adopted by every country because every country is unique, and each transition will be different. From these two countries, it can be learned that not only rich and developed countries have the opportunity to overcome cost and internal barriers for a green transition. Perhaps it is easier to implement new power solutions where stakeholders are more mobilized to change the status quo. Stakeholders need to be actively involved in bringing change to society. Moreover, there is also a need to decentralise power to local government to meet the need of the society at the grassroots level and to establish cohesion and collaboration between municipalities, government, and the public during an early stage of transition because local empowerment and public engagement is a key to success.  

For instance, India’s increasing energy consumption demand leads it to its shift to renewable energy sources. Currently, India’s total installed capacity of renewable energy, excluding hydropower is 90 gigawatts. According to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the country’s clean energy capacity is expected to reach 220 gigawatts with the inclusion of hydropower by 2022. By the end of this year, the government has targeted to meet half of the country’s power demand with renewable energy sources. The Union Budget 2021-22 has allotted Rs 2,606 crore for the solar power sector and will launch a National Hydrogen Mission for generating hydrogen from green power sources. Thus, there is no doubt that renewable energy and climate targets have pushed India well on its way to achieving a clean energy future. Furthermore, the targets can be achieved more efficiently and effectively by improving accountability, transparency, data collection, and center-state and state-state coordination.

Hence from the above discussion, it has been clear that in modern times, with the changing climatic conditions it is essential to raise the standard of living by providing cleaner and more reliable electricity. The transition to clean and sustainable energy is possible for both rich and poor countries of the world by a corporation, leadership, and sharing of knowledge and power between the stakeholders at all levels. One thing should always be kept in mind that,

“The limits to renewable are not technical, or financial, or regulatory- they are the ones we set for ourselves and each other”. 

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Yatika Agrawal
Yatika Agarwal is a final year student pursuing M.Sc. in Economics, specialization in Development Studies from Symbiosis School of Economics, Pune.