Are We Pursuing “Sustainable Development” Unsustainably?

This week marked the two-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti that killed 300,000 people, displaced 1.5 million people, and crippled already-crumbling infrastructure.

In the effort to rebuild, the Haitian government has a unique opportunity to transform its electricity grid to favor distributed generation and help increase energy access in the most energy-impoverished country in the western hemisphere. Today, only 12% of Haitians have access to the electricity grid.

However, expanding access means thinking differently about infrastructure than before the tragedy.

“After the earthquake, everyone wanted to focus on rebuilding the grid. But it’s important to remember that even if the grid were fully constructed, it’s still serving a small amount of the population and still hemorrhaging money,” explained Allison Archambault, president of EarthSpark International, an organization working to bring distributed energy technologies to Haiti.

“It’s the smaller solutions that have a bigger and faster impact,” she told Climate Progress.

EarthSpark’s mission is to bring distributed energy technologies to Haitians in order to help them spend less time and money on securing energy. The organization helps set up stores for selling LED lanterns and solar technologies, while also providing education on distributed energy.

Rather than spend millions of dollars on an expensive, unreliable electricity system that may not benefit Haitians for many years (if at all), EarthSpark is working on building a small-scale, profitable alternative focused on individual solutions.

For example, the solar LED lantern it sells costs about $12. With the cost of operating a kerosene lantern at around $0.25 per night, the payback for a safe, renewable product only two months. And that’s not even factoring in the cost of the actual kerosene lantern itself.

“The big grid is sucking up almost all of the political attention. It’s complicated and can be very political, but these distributed technologies make such a huge difference, very quickly,” says Archambault.

This struggle between large, centralized energy infrastructure and nimble, distributed infrastructure is playing out throughout the developing world. As emerging countries rush to catch up with the developed world, they’re often focusing on building the same type of dirty, inefficient energy systems — with that vision pushed by organizations like the World Bank, which is helping fund massive coal plants.

This conflict is now a central piece of the conversation around sustainable international development.

“Eliminating kerosene is different than eliminating a coal plant. You’re dealing with some pretty deeply ingrained forces,” said Justin Guay of the Sierra Club’s international climate program, speaking to Climate Progress at the international climate talks in Durban, South Africa.

One of the big “wins” coming out of Durban was the creation of a framework for the Green Fund, an international pool of money that will help finance mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries. The fund is designed to bring together $100 billion a year by 2020 for deploying clean energy and other infrastructure projects.

But environmental groups are also heavily criticizing World Bank involvement in the Green Fund, saying the organization’s bias toward dirty fossilized infrastructure makes it ill equipped to manage it:

With regard to international climate finance, civil society asks: Is the Bank fit to serve? As the World Bank is handing billions to polluting coal plants that serve the needs of industry over the poor with the right hand, the left is grasping for funds to assist developing countries cope with the devastation of climate change. Given the disastrous environmental and social costs of its large scale fossil fuel investments that rarely meet the needs of the impoverished, the World Bank’s rap sheet should certainly disqualify it from management of such funds.

Some are also questioning the United Nations “Sustainable Energy for All” campaign, an international public-private partnership designed to raise $45 billion a year by 2030 to help the 1.5 billion people without access to modern energy services. The UN says it will be done through a combination of distributed and centralized projects. (For an audio interview on the subject with Kandeh Yumkella, director general of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, check out our recent podcast.)

However, Guay said that Sierra Club and other organizations in the environmental community are watching the formation of the advisory board, concerned that it yet again favors centralized development.

“The co-chair is Bank of America, the number-three coal financier. You look at the advisory board and it’s all institutions that have a bias toward centralized projects. There’s a whole slew of entrepreneurs who are not on it. It’s something we’re extremely concerned about,” said Guay.

That includes entrepreneurs like Harish Hande, who is co-founder and managing director of the Solar Electric Light Company (SELCO), a leading organization that deploys solar home lighting, street lighting and other distributed services in India.

Since starting the organization in 1995, Hande and the SELCO team have helped finance and deploy more than 115,000 solar systems around India. But they’re not just selling solar systems. SELCO works with customers to help them customize infrastructure to system specifications — making projects as efficient as possible.

“We don’t just talk about products. We look at this very holistically,” explained Hande to Climate Progress.

But even though the model has proven successful, Hande doesn’t feel that the community he represents is getting enough say in the sustainable development process.

“There’s a huge gap. There are no practitioner views at all,” said Hande. “You have the activists and you have the business side that looks at the large stuff. There has to be a paradigm shift in how you run these programs — we are trying to fit existing models into a new paradigm. We have to think outside the box.”

As the climate talks in Durban proved, the global community is willing to rally around a collective commitment to help developing countries increase energy access in a sustainable way. But there are still a lot of unanswered concerns about how “sustainable” that development will be.


10 Responses to Are We Pursuing “Sustainable Development” Unsustainably?

  1. Joan Savage says:

    Solar PV would shift some of Haiti’s dependence on petroleum imports over to solar panel replacement and electrical skills. That’s still an import dependency, but from the carbon side of things, an improvement.

    In the Haiti earthquake disaster, cell phones continued to function. How? Because the cell phone towers operate on diesel-run generators, and the diesel is delivered to the generators by donkeys carrying 55 gallon drums. The cell phones themselves were recharged at small stores with diesel generators that offered recharging at a small fee. As a native born Haitian has said, nearly everyone in Haiti knows how to use a diesel generator.

    If folks in inland North America want the Haitians to shift to solar PV, make sure that the PV panels can survive a hurricane (I’d like to see a comment on that!) and many Haitians have the know how to keep the panels up and running. The government is not well organized enough, so it has to be a wide-spread distributed understandable technology, like diesel, that replaces diesel.

  2. Bill Goedecke says:

    Thanks for this.

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    I worked in the Dominican Republic, and can report that fossil fuel power is very expensive in the Caribbean. Most central power plants are not even coal or gas powered, but run from bunker fuel, a dirty and expensive proposition.

    Rooftop solar makes perfect sense, and a small system is fine. Few in the Caribbean use air conditioning, so power requirements are low.

    The problem, as always, is money. Bankers, including the World Bank, like to fund power plants, because there is some sort of payback in the form of utility bills (though they often run at a loss in the Third World). A couple of thousand dollars for a small solar system is not easy to find in Haiti, and nobody wants to give away or finance systems for individual families. When the financing issue is solved, Haitians will move in the right direction.

  4. Leif says:

    “For example, the solar LED lantern it sells costs about $12. With the cost of operating a kerosene lantern at around $0.25 per night, the payback for a safe, renewable product only two months. And that’s not even factoring in the cost of the actual kerosene lantern itself.”

    Neither is it factoring in the downstream health effects on a population forced into close confinement with the pollution of the nightly burning of that kerosene.

    Or for that matter the up stream job benefits and export of the high-tech production of the product itself. All of which stays in the hands of “we the people” and not in the pockets of the ecocidal fossil industry barons.

  5. Leif says:

    Distributed power = Distributed wealth…

  6. Mark Shapiro says:

    An important point in an important post.

    PV is cost-effective now.

    Small-scale PV is cost-effective now for small-scale today, for the poorest 2 or 3 billion.

  7. Leif says:

    The very thing that both dictators and fossil fuel barons fear the most. Keep those folks in debt and keep them subservient. The name of the game to those that prosper on the backs of the masses.

  8. RobLL says:

    I lived a few months without electricity in Alaska several decades ago. The first few watts of electricity were the most valuable, in the form of my battery operated transister radio. Occasional flashlight usage was second. Today LED would obviously replace old flashlights and kerosene or gas lighting. In tropical areas solar water heating seems a no-brainer. I still have not read about really great solar ovens, which also could be used for simmering. Rob

  9. riverat says:

    Isn’t solar PV less expensive than diesel generated power? It seems like it would be a no-brainer for places like Hispaniola. But you’re right, hurricanes have to come into consideration.

  10. Scott says:

    There is another consideration as well. While the solar panels can be expected to last 20-25 years, the battery arrays which they recharge will likely last no longer than five years and often only three years. That means, an eight battery system may have a maintenance cost of at least $1,200 each three years which needs to be in the plan.

    Second point is there needs to be education about how to operate the system. If they are run all the way down, it is bad for the batteries and shortens the battery life considerably.

    I have found that we all like solutions we create and deliver, but without considering the required education and maintenance…

    I appreciate the good feedback included above…