UNEP pinpoints low-risk renewables potential in developing countries

In an effort to help boost the development of solar and wind energy in developing countries, UNEP has begun a survey of 13 countries to identify the most suitable locations for potential investors to develop with minimal risk.

“If we can accelerate the deployment of renewable energy we can not only bring down the costs, but also help in the fight against global warming and poverty,” said Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP. “Those without access to electricity are forced to fell trees for firewood and cooking fuel, accelerating impacts such as soil erosion and the loss of the world’s wildlife”.

Other possible benefactors could be those industrialised countries, which, under the recent Marrakech climate change agreements, opt to offset domestic emissions by developing renewables in the third world, and need to identify appropriate sites.

Adviser to UNEP’s Solar and Wind Energy Survey Assessment (SWERA) believes the potential in the developing world is far greater than is currently assumed, and that the lack of accurate climate information has been the main brake on widespread development. Within six months of the completion of a similar survey in the Philippines, a pre-feasibility study for a 40 MW wind farm, the first in the country, was carried out, according to UNEP. The survey also led to a significantly increased upward revision of potential wind power capacity from around 100 MW over the next 10 years to 2000 MW by 2015.

“The investment of a solar thermal power plant of 200 MW electric capacity is approximately US$400 million. For such a power plant, an error of 10% in the solar resource would amount to a difference of US$150 million in revenues over the life of the project which is a heavy burden for its economic performance,” said Tom Hamlin, Climate Change Task Manager in the UNEP/Global Environment Facility’s Coordination Unit based in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Meanwhile, the efficiency of steam turbines operated with concentrated solar thermal energy is strongly affected by fluctuating solar energy input,” said Hamlin. “Such dynamic effects, which may easily reduce performance by 10% to 20%, can only be specified if the solar radiation intensity is known on an hour-by-hour basis. Those insecurities have presented a considerable obstacle to the widespread use of solar thermal power technology up to now.”

The SWERA project findings will be linked with a Geographical Information System (GIS) so that prospective developers can pinpoint precise and promising locations on-line. Funds of US$9.3 million have been secured for the initial, three-year, pilot phase; and the countries where the surveys are to be carried out are: Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Cuba, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sri Lanka.

Delivering cleaner energy to developing countries is expected to be high on the agenda of UNEP’s mid-February Global Ministerial Environment Forum, in Cartagena, Colombia. in mid-February 2002.

The wide disparity between countries and regions of the world in developing wind energy capacity is highlighted in new figures published by the Earth Policy Institute, EPI. It is projecting that 2001 is likely to have matched the previous year’s global growth in wind capacity of around 31%, and points out that two thirds of the growth was concentrated in three countries which consistently lead the way in commissioning new capacity. According to the EPI, capacity rose from 17,800 MW in 2000 to an estimated 23,300 MW, led by Germany with 8,000 MW, accounting for nearly a third of the total. The US followed with 4150 MW, then Spain with 3,300 MW; and Denmark in fourth place with 2,500 MW, supplying 18% of its electricity from wind. For the US, this translates into a 63% growth in capacity in 2001.

European capacity has consistently increased annually by 40% for the past six years, according to the European Wind Energy Association, but this masks a wide disparity between countries to date. Germany is set to continue to lead the way with German operators reported to be planning a further 2,500 MW for 2002 and 2003.

This compares with the British wind energy sector’s projections for unprecedented growth in 2002 based on the construction of 200 MW capacity this year and the promise of support to ease recent planning restrictions on wind energy. One of the world’s largest wind farm project has however been proposed for the Isle of Lewis at 600 MW, and to date has been welcomed both locally and by the government. The UK government is also hailing 2002 as the year of the renewables with the introduction of its Renewables Obligation from 1 April, which is due to guarantee at least a £750 million market for electricity generated from renewable sources by 2010.

According to EPI, the biggest wind project close to commissioning is the 300 MW Stateline wind project on the border between Oregon and Washington. In South Dakota, Jim Dehlsen, a pioneer in developing California’s wind energy, has secured the wind rights to 222,000 acres of farm and ranchland in the east central part of the state. He plans to develop a 3,000 MW wind farm and to transmit the electricity across Iowa, supplying Illinois and other states in the industrial Midwest.

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