Renewables like solar and wind are quickly becoming more affordable and accessible. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reports that the cost of electricity coming from utility-scale solar power fell 82 percent between 2010 and 2019, and clean power technologies such as solar and wind are undercutting even the cheapest coal-fired power plants. Further, a 2020 analysis from BloombergNEF found that wind and solar have overtaken fossil fuels as the most cost-effective form of new sources of electricity in most of the world.
This trend has made “energy leapfrogging” – i.e., the ability to reap a nation’s power needs from renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal at a rapid pace, bypassing heavy investments in fossil fuels and the infrastructure needed for them – ever more possible in emerging markets.
Economies, including several examples in Africa and Latin America, have been transitioning straight from what for many of their communities had been traditional sources of energy like wood, charcoal, agricultural waste and animal dung; these countries are also able to shift rapidly toward renewables as they have not invested in massive infrastructure that supports a national power grid, as was the case with what more industrialized nations in Europe and North America had done during the 20th century.
The result is that more communities within these emerging markets are forgoing conventional energy sources like fossil fuels; the same goes for other forms of energy like nuclear, biofuels and even natural gas.
A recent report from the think tank Carbon Tracker and India’s Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) highlights progress emerging nations are making in embracing renewables. The report also comes with a warning: If more nations do not leapfrog to these cleaner sources of energy, a worldwide low-carbon economy will not occur.
The International Energy Agency estimates a surge in power generation in emerging nations will boom over the next decade, accounting for the majority of electricity demand by 2030. Thus, a world aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has an incentive to ensure countries like India and China continue their developing infrastructure that is more conducive for renewables.
The authors of this Carbon Tracker and CEEW study find that emerging markets are already stepping away from fossil fuels. “Given the continued rapid growth rate of solar and wind, it is highly likely that emerging markets ex-China have already plateaued or reached peak demand for fossil fuels for electricity. China is likely to peak before 2025,” they write. China may still be a major coal consumer, but its solar sector is growing fast. Countries like Morocco, Nicaragua and Kenya have already made great leaps toward increased reliance on renewables.
The Climate Reality Project details how Morocco, Nicaragua and Kenya have been able to turn their power generation sectors into ones that are more sustainable and resilient. Morocco, for one, has set a target of 42 percent renewable energy production by 2021 and 52 percent by 2030. It has stayed on track by building up its solar and wind power infrastructure. The North Africa country, in fact, now hosts one of the largest solar farms in the world.
After experiencing rolling blackouts due to energy insecurity a decade ago, Nicaragua is now on its way to sourcing 80 percent of its electricity from sources of renewables. By late 2020, Nicaragua’s burgeoning geothermal industry had brought the nation to 72 percent reliance on renewable energy sources.
Energy accessibility has been expanding in Kenya as decentralized solar has spread across the nation. The country is also making use of its geothermal power, which may reach 50 percent of its energy mix by 2040.
These cases show that a dramatic shift to renewable energy can increase energy accessibility and stability. The economic case is significant. IRENA reported in 2016 that a doubling of renewables by 2030 could mean global GDP increases by over one percent, boosts social welfare investments by almost four percent and can add more than 24 million jobs.
While some nations have proved leapfrogging possible and beneficial, the authors of the Carbon Tracker and CEEW study note that there are serious barriers to building renewable energy reliance. Such hurdles include the intermittency of renewable sources, system costs, policies and deeply vested interests — but international actors can make a difference. The report recommends that international policymakers should focus their attention on countries currently dependent on fossil fuel imports that also have governments more amenable to policy solutions.
Finally, the authors contend that such nations are more receptive to a transition than countries that are more politically fragile. They are also in a stronger position than countries with economies largely driven by coal and gas exports. The result is that these countries that have found success with energy leapfrogging can become examples for their neighbors and help to bring more emerging nations closer toward a clean energy future.
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