Decentralised sources of energy would make possible entrepreneurial and small-size businesses in many more areas of the world, it says. Apart from wind, stand-alone power applications such as solar thermal, PV cells, and fuel cells that convert hydrogen directly into electricity without burning it to provide heat are promising because they also do not need much maintenance and create little pollution, the report adds.
All these sources are vital, the report continues, because increased access to electricity is essential for providing improved health care, education, housing, water and sanitation for the world's poor people. The report estimates that as many as 2.5 billion people worldwide have little or no energy -- and conventional fuels and their accompanying pollution are far too expensive to provide much relief.
The report could become crucial in the fight to include renewables in international debate on development and environment. At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, discussion on a strong energy plank was blocked by several oil producing countries. "I hope this report can serve to foster the international debate and consensus process concerning the importance of sustainable energy and refocus international commitment on these critical issues during the 1997 Review of Rio," says James Gustave Speth, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) administrator. "No issue lies at the intersection of development and environment more prominently and uneasily than energy."
The upcoming special General Assembly session, on June 19, is to assess international progress in the five years since Rio. "The essential linkages between energy and socio-economic development were not approached in an integrated fashion (at Rio)," says Speth. The new report, released on February 28, builds on previous studies by UN agencies and research institutes. The UNDP has added new material by compiling an analysis of various energy sources, their investment potential, and their development impact.
"There is no one solution," comments Tom Johansson, an author of the report and director of the UNDP Energy and Atmosphere Programme. "Sustainable energy can be used an as instrument for creating rural jobs, e.g. through bioenergy, and new technologies offer opportunities for affordable and vastly improved energy services."
Energy consumption in Africa, Asia and Latin America is expected to increase dramatically in the next two decades while investment in sustainable energy is expected to be negligible, the report cautions. That probably means that capital will have to be raised in financial markets, accompanied by some government credits in a mix of public and private enterprise. Where this has been tried, "people have been willing to pay the cost and most of the credits can be recovered," Johansson adds. "It's a lot better than candles and batteries."
Meantime, governments today spend about $300 billion yearly to subsidise conventional energy, which accounts for more than three-quarters of the world's electric consumption even though it is accompanied by atmospheric pollution, acid rain, and more greenhouse gases. Even poor countries spend some $50 billion on subsidising conventional energy technologies, which ironically enough is more than any official development aid they receive from the First World. With growth of electricity consumption, that situation is getting worse, the report warns.
Too many development strategies are overlooking the fundamental role of energy in alleviating poverty, it continues. Everything from the hours people spend looking for firewood, the lack of generators in hospitals and the limited hours for work and education if there is no artificial light. On nuclear energy, which supplies 15% of the world's electric power, the report warns ominously that if it becomes more widely used "the safeguarding of weapons-usable material will become still more daunting." Nuclear power is meanwhile advocated by the UN Atomic Energy Agency.
In addition to the dangers of nuclear energy, funding for research on renewables or efficiency -- and for actual projects -- is expected to remain scarce, says the report. Last year, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) held a Solar Summi. However, by the end of the proceedings, little money for studying renewable energy technologies had been pinpointed.