New research by the State of the Tropics project reveals US $30 trillion needs to be spent in the Tropics by 2030 to provide sustainable infrastructure for the billions of people who call the tropical region home. This research also covers renewable energy in the Tropics as one of topics.

More than one billion people worldwide do not have access to any form of modern energy, while for another billion access is intermittent and unreliable. Most of these people live in rural areas of the Tropics. Energy generation lies at the intersection of development, poverty alleviation and climate change. The energy infrastructure deficit in the region is a significant challenge but it also offers an opportunity for tropical nations to develop more efficient, decentralised and renewable forms of energy generation that can ‘leap-frog’ inefficient and polluting infrastructure.

Micro-hydro, solar photo-voltaic and biomass gasification as well as hybrid technologies such as wind-diesel and solar-diesel supported by energy storage technologies are evolving rapidly. Proportionately more of the energy generated in the Tropics is from renewable energy sources than in the rest of the world. Some tropical areas such as parts of South and Central America already rely mostly on renewable energy, while other constituencies such as Singapore and Australia are world leaders in research and development in renewable energy technologies ideally suited to tropical conditions.

Energy in the Tropics

Appropriately developed and managed infrastructure is a powerful catalyst for promoting economic growth, social inclusion and environmental stewardship. Energy generation in particular, lies at the intersection of development, poverty alleviation and climate change.

For the majority of people on Earth, having a light at night, being able to stay warm and keeping food cold is a simple as turning on switch. However, more than one billion people worldwide to not have any access to modern energy, while for another billion, access is intermittent and unreliable. Most of these people live in rural areas of the Tropics

Energy Access

Access to electricity is an important aspect of sustainable development playing a vital role in helping communities to overcome poverty, promoting economic growth and employment opportunities, and supporting the provision of social services such as education and healthcare. However, electricity generated by fossil fuels is the largest contributor to greenhouse gasses produced by human communities. The changing nature of how people are producing and using energy in the Tropics will play and increasingly influential role in the world’s aspirations for achieving global sustainable development targets and reducing the impacts of climate change.

Reliable Access

There has been improvement to access to electricity in the Tropics (as shown in the infographic) however this does not necessarily ensure constant or reliable supply. It is estimated that beyond the 1.1 billion people who do not access to electricity a further billion doe have access to reliable electricity. Limited generation and transmission capacity, poor maintenance and inefficient supply chains lead to regular power outages, even in urban areas in many parts of the Tropics. This will be an ongoing challenge for tropical nations as ongoing demand will continue to outstrip supply. The challenge will be meeting this shortfall of electricity access without having to rely on large scale expansion of fossil fuel based electricity generation.

Renewable Energy and Decentralised Solutions

It is clear that despite recent increases in reviewable energy sources and infrastructure, such as solar and wind, fossil fuels continue to contribute most to electricity generation world-wide. The challenge for the Tropics will be to increase the contribution of renewable sources of energy and improve efficiency of fossil fuel based generation.

The traditional approach to increase access to electricity is to extend the central electricity grid. However, this is expensive and relies on a few, large, and often remote power stations. Decentralised energy, distributed generation, or off grid power solutions mean that energy is produced closer to where it is used, produces smaller amounts and is often powered by renewable energy sources. Local generation can reduce transmission costs, reduce power losses, require smaller initial investment and have a smaller carbon footprint.

James Cook University's report covers across different parts of the Tropics and identifies key gaps, needs and issues in order to achieve these goals for the region. The report emphasises that a key challenge lies in balancing the great potential economic and social benefits of developing infrastructure while ensuring it is equitably distributed and environmentally sustainable. You can download it here.

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