United Nations has called on
businesses, governments, and
civil society to achieve Sustainable
Energy for All by 2030
Member Spotlight – Daniel Kammen
Theory and Practice Together Build Clean Energy Access
By Daniel M. Kammen
Daniel Kammen is Professor in the Energy and Resources Group, and in the Goldman School of Public Policy, and in the Department of Nuclear Engineering; and is Founding Director, Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley – email@example.com.
Two interlinked challenges of sustainability define our energy future: the persistence of widespread energy poverty and intensifying human-driven climate disruption. These crises are inexorably linked through the energy technology systems that have so far provided the vast majority of our energy: biomass and fossil fuels. Both the energy service crisis and the climate crisis have become increasingly serious over the past decades, even though we have seen greater clarity about the individual and social costs that each has brought to humanity.
The correlation between access to electricity and a wide range of social goods is overwhelming. However, access to improved energy services alone does not provide a sure-fire pathway to economic opportunity and an improved quality of life. Figure 1 details the correlations that exist between electricity access across nations and a variety of measures of quality of life, such as the Human Development Index (HDI). Other indicators studied include gender equality in educational opportunity, and the percentage of students who reach educational milestones.[i]
Recently we have seen an emergence of off-grid and now mini-grid electricity systems that do not require the same supporting networks as the traditional forms of centralized power generation. These technological innovations are as much based on information systems as they are directly about energy technology. Mini-grids and increasingly diverse products (TVs, super-efficient refrigerators, etc. …) for individual end uses such as solar home systems have benefited from dramatic price reductions and performance advances in solid state electronics, cellular communications technologies, electronic banking, as well as the dramatic decrease in solar energy costs.2 This mix of technological and market innovation has contributed to a vibrant new energy services sector that in many nations has outpaced traditional grid expansion.
The classic utility model of a one-way flow of energy from power plant to consumers is now rapidly changing. The combination of low-cost solar, micro-hydro, and other generation technologies, coupled with the electronics needed to manage small-scale power and to communicate to control devices and to remote billing systems, has changed village energy. High-performance, low-cost photovoltaic generation, paired with advanced batteries and controllers, provides scalable systems across much larger power ranges than central generation, from megawatts down to fractions of a watt.
The rapid and continuing improvements in end-use efficiency for solid state lighting, direct current televisions, refrigeration, fans, and information and communication technology (ICT, as seen in Figure 2) have resulted in a ‘super-efficiency trend’. This progress has enabled decentralized power and appliance systems to compete with conventional equipment for basic household needs. These rapid technological advances in supporting clean energy both on- and off-grid are predicted to continue. This process has been particularly important at the individual device and household (solar home system) level, and for the emerging world of village mini-grids.[ii]
Despite this rapid evolution, a tension exists between both traditional utility planners and the ‘new skeptics’ who see innovative challenges to the traditional grids as diversions from ‘full energy services’.[iii] The evolving technology and management base of distributed, modular and clean energy options has changed this landscape in ways that are not being reflected in the arguments against smart, clean energy access.
We are now seeing these changes in perspective more and more often. In fact, recently in Malaysian Borneo my colleague Dr. Rebekah Shirley and I chronicled two key test cases: a coal-fired power plant and a mega-hydropower project rejected in favor of a cleaner, more decentralized energy mix.[iv] Noah Kittner and I are analyzing and observing a similar dynamic in the Balkans, where we find that the clean energy options are both faster to install and simply cheaper than the old fossil fuel dependent development path.[v]
To enable and expand this process, a range of design principles can form a roadmap to clean energy economies. These include but are not limited to emphasizing the benefits of: a) Establishing clear energy access and development goals at the local level; b) Empowering villages as both designers and consumers of localized power; and c) Making gender and ethnic equity a central design consideration for energy access projects.
[i] Alstone, P, Gershenson, D and Kammen, DM (2015). Decentralized energy systems for clean electricity access, Nature Climate Change, 5, 305-314.
[ii] Schnitzer, D, Lounsbury, D, Carvallo, J-P, Deshmukh, R, Apt, J & Kammen, DM (2014). Microgrids for Rural Electrification: A critical review of best practices based on seven case studies (United Nations Foundation: New York, NY).
[iii] Nordhaus, T, Devi, S & Trembath, A (2016). Debunking Microenergy: The Future Lies With Urbanization, Foreign Affairs, August 30, 2016.
[iv] Shirley, R and Kammen, D. M. (2015). ”Energy planning and development in Malaysian Borneo: Assessing the benefits of distributed technologies versus large scale energy mega-projects,” Energy Strategy Reviews, 8, 15-29; and http://www.theborneopost.com/2016/08/17/adenan-gets-praise-from-renowned-professor/
[v] Kammen, D, and Kittner, N (2015). “Energy in the Balkans”, The Economist, September 12, 2015.