Rural Solar BoliviaIn the bone chilling cold of the high Bolivian Altiplano are numerous rural isolated villages. These villages have existed on subsistence agriculture and without electrification for centuries. In this region of the world, unique and innovative strategies to survive and cope with local circumstances are part of everyday life. With the help of hi-tech innovation in the developed world, developing nations like Bolivia can find innovative ways to pull themselves out of energy poverty.

As an example, the resilient inhabitants of Bolivia have been chewing coca leaves to combat altitude sickness for centuries; this age-old remedy is impossible to fully appreciate until you have personally been relieved of a splitting altitude induced headache. If visiting the Altiplano, you’re likely to finish chewing your coca leaves and look up to see your host pull out a cell phone that has been charged by a solar panel. While seemingly odd given the local circumstances, it shouldn’t be unexpected. In developing Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in South America, solar resources are abundant and 3 million of the country’s 10 million people live without electricity access. In fact, solar panels and solar water heaters are a relatively common site along the roadside in Bolivia and in rural villages.

So how is this still costly technology finding a foot hold in Bolivia? The developing world is more apt, in some cases, to find ingenious and efficient applications for technology. Imagine seeing someone charging their phone from a solar panel in New York City, it’s almost as odd as imagining a person chewing coca leaves as they climb the Empire State building. Yet the adage holds true, necessity and circumstance drive innovation, and developing countries aren’t short on necessity or challenging circumstances.

For six months I traveled through South America: in Bolivia and Ecuador I saw energy systems off of the grid in isolated communities; in Colombia and Peru I saw solar water heaters in rural and urban centers; and in all of these countries I saw examples of extreme energy poverty. Latin America, like much of the developing world, has a serious need and demand for cheap and clean energy.

Clean Energy Poverty

Today, nearly 3 billion people are living without regular access to electricity while approximately 1.5 billion people have no access to electricity at all. A recent piece by Natalie Relich emphasizes the implications that this lack of energy has on education, health, gender, hunger, poverty, and other millennium development goals (MDG). Energy poverty exacerbates the various plights of the developing world and, conversely, if alleviated, has the potential to diminish many of the world’s hardships. In a report released in June 2010, the UNDP found that access to energy has a “boosting” effect in achieving the millennium development goals.

An EIA report projects that world energy consumption will increase 49% from 2007 levels by 2035. Of this growth, it projects that the majority will come from increased fossil fuel capacity in the developing world. Improving access to energy, whether through increasing generation or improving distribution, is a key goal for international development, and it is critical that the energy that fills this gap is clean energy.

According to the EIA energy 2010 energy outlook in 2007, only about 18% of global electricity was generated by clean energy (primarily hydro-electric), while coal accounted for approximately 42% of global energy. Coal and other fossil fuels are used throughout the globe, in the developed and developing world alike, and dependence on such fuels is detrimental for a nation’s energy security, the environment, and as Michael Levi of CFR points out, is potentially detrimental to a nation’s image.

Transitioning from traditional forms of energy to clean energy will require technological breakthroughs and the necessary investments in R&D to achieve them. Making clean energy cheap must be a central goal of America and the rest of the developed world. An example from a National Geographic article is illuminating:

“…a biogas digester that takes less than a day to turn kitchen scraps and other organic waste into clean-burning methane that can be used for cooking and electricity would cost $400. ‘For people living on $2 a day, this is a tough investment,’ said Culhane. But with help to buy such systems for groups of residents, communities could easily switch from primitive cookstoves and tackle waste-related health problems at the same time.”

While providing help to buy such systems would be beneficial, if the US can develop cheap and scalable energy technologies, like these, both the producer and the purchaser would benefit greatly. And for the US, not only will developments in clean energy technology gain it economic competitiveness and energy security, but will also help to improve its international image.

Many will argue that increasing access to energy shouldn’t necessarily prioritize access to clean energy; however, increasing access to energy without it being clean energy will only address some of the problems that energy poverty creates. Energy from traditional polluting sources has negative health impacts, has the potential to cause political turmoil, and has detrimental effects on the environment and climate. As Paul Epstein has pointed out in the past, those that are afflicted by energy poverty are also those people most likely to be vulnerable to the impacts of climate change in areas such as health, education, hunger, and poverty. Energy from traditional sources will help alleviate some immediate concerns from energy poverty, but will create potentially more disastrous impacts for the world’s most vulnerable populations down the road and continue to leave the world in clean energy poverty.

As we look to the future we need to develop innovative practices and technologies that will deliver clean energy to the developed world as well as the developing world, and in doing so, we have the opportunity eliminate clean energy poverty.

Open Clean Energy Innovation

Innovation is defined as a new idea, method, or device. A new device or invention is a critical component of advancing a clean energy agenda for the United States and the world. Making clean energy cheap through invention can be complemented by innovation in practice and use of such technologies. Innovative uses of technologies can lead to efficiency, can create markets, and can address a variety of needs. In the developing world, innovative uses of technology seem to come as second nature as such populations face pressing challenges on a daily basis.

In South American cities like Curitiba, Brazil and Medellin, Colombia world class transportation systems—using technologies largely developed in other parts of the world—help limit greenhouse gas emissions and transport people from place to place using innovative designs and methods. In Peru, solar panels are allowing for rural internet access in 130 Andean communities for the first time. If the US can supply the technological innovation, then the developing world will, out of necessity, provide the methodological innovation. Combine technological innovation with innovative methods of application and we might develop solutions to energy poverty.

Nearly two years ago a presentation by Clay Shirky, a professor at NYU, gave State Department officials a new perspective on innovation and development. The presentation, given at the State Department as an attempt to inject new energy and ideas into development and foreign policy, primarily focused on social networking and communication, yet its lessons can be more widely applied. Shirky emphasized that more than any other time in history, due to the spread of technology and social media, innovation has the ability to be a multidirectional process. Traditionally innovative technology and practices travel from the developed world to the developing, but with the spread of various enabling technologies and social media this is no longer the case—innovation is just as likely to arise in the developing world and travel to the developed.

His simple example is easily extrapolated to other technologies and circumstances: citizens in Nigeria used frontline SMS technology to monitor elections in 2007. This strategy pioneered in the developing world has now been seen in action in elections in the United States and other developed countries. It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to see innovative uses of clean technologies also originating in the developing world.

It’s often said that “necessity is the mother of invention” and who knows more about necessity than the people living in the developing world? Granted, innovation in clean energy production and distribution is an expensive undertaking with a record $243 billion invested in clean energy globally in 2010. In this sense the developed world and large, rapidly developing countries like China maintain an advantage, but in the developing world more problems lead to a need for more solutions.

What seems likely is that developing countries will innovate in practice and uses, while the developed world will address more expensive technical solutions. Innovated uses will surely effect technological goals, the products of which will be uniquely suited to address energy poverty. Clean energy, its advancement, and its production will benefit both parties where they need it most: jobs in the US and electricity in the developing world. We must invest in innovative clean energy generation, distribution, and energy efficiency, but we also must not be afraid to look to the developing world for organic and innovative uses and applications of existing and future technologies.

One such avenue for this sharing of information, and a way to facilitate this exchange, is through the voluntary carbon market that exists in the US. The United States did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol; however, the US is the center of the $387 million dollar voluntary carbon market. This offers a possible forum for exchanges in innovative technologies and applications of technologies. Government initiatives to encourage voluntary carbon reductions and carbon offsets can help garner innovative development of clean energy abroad and at home as a complement to government funding for clean energy research.

For example, the US DOE program Climate Leaders helps companies identify and meet voluntary goals through onsite reductions and the purchase of carbon offsets (domestically and internationally). Voluntary offsets are typically cheaper and more open to new technologies than the regulated CDM or the EU-ETS. This gives US companies and investors a chance to try different technologies and practices to reduce emissions and offers a natural way for technology and funding to be transferred to areas with the necessity and circumstances that will drive innovative usage.

Seeking Boredom

When the US and the Soviet Union engaged in an all out “Space Race” driving innovation and competition in satellite technology and space travel, the benefits weren’t confined to the two competitors’ borders. Satellite technology now helps us watch television, use GPS, track weather patterns, monitor deforestation in the Amazon, and has aided global society in myriad of other ways. As we look forward, energy is the central piece to global development, stability, and resilience. Clearly, innovation will be critical to any US strategy in competing in clean energy and in a clean economy. To transition away from carbon intensive fuels to clean fuels will present the developed world with its own set of challenges, different than installing clean energy in places that are seeking electrification for the first time. US innovation in clean technology will benefit the globe and international development goals; simultaneously, understanding the needs, circumstances, and potential contributions of the developing world will also aid the US push for an economy of innovation.

Clay Shirky has been quoted saying that “…tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” Shirky, a social media guru, was referring to social media and cell phones in this context, but the quote can also be applied to clean technology. We need to make clean energy technology like solar panels and wind turbines, so cheap, scalable, and “boring” that they can be used throughout the developing world. Once technological innovation in clean energies has taken hold then we will see how innovative uses and implementation originating in the developing world can provide new solutions for the world as a whole.


Cory Connolly is a Contributor in AEL’s New Energy Leaders Project and his work will be regularly featured on the website. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of AEL.


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