In Europe and North America, the debate on renewables is often conducted in the context of achieving the right energy mix – reducing dependence on fossil fuels and planning for energy conservation and efficiency. But what role can sustainable, renewable energy play in those areas of the world where having more than one energy source would be an unimaginable luxury, and where energy supply means cutting down a tree or foraging for firewood?
At the European Court of Auditors, we recently conducted an audit of funding for renewable energy programs in East Africa. In the rural and peri‑urban areas of Africa, households’ priority electricity needs are generally lighting, charging mobile phones, a radio set or a television, air circulation and, when and where possible, a refrigerator, air conditioning or other appliances. At village level, supplying electricity to medical centers is usually the top priority, followed by administrative facilities, schools and, where needed, water pumping. The arrival of electricity is a game-changer: it makes possible activities such as grain milling, rice husking, sawmilling, food and drink refrigeration, tailoring or communication centers.
But where does that electricity come from? The poor in rural and peri-rural areas often have no access at all to modern energy sources, such as wind, solar, hydro and biomass. So European Union development policy promotes access to renewables and supports a wide variety of projects from off-grid, small-scale production to capacity building and energy for cooking. The problems encountered can vary widely: small biomass units need proper daily maintenance by a member of the household to run properly, while on a larger scale a region or a country need reliable wind maps to maximize the use of wind as a sustainable energy source.
Against this background, development policy makers must assess a country’s energy mix and long-term energy policy on a continuing basis. National policies both in developed and developing countries tend to neglect the importance of renewable energies once natural resources, such as oil or gas fields, are discovered and their exploitation is about to be launched. Balancing the different interests at stake is not easy. But the use of renewable energy must be further increased, not least to tackle global warming. The effect of climate change can be seen everywhere and may have direct consequences for the use of renewable energy; for instance, hydraulic power may no longer be feasible in an area where a dam was built 20 years ago.