The use of alternative natural sources of energy is attractive because of the uncertain price and limited availability of oil, the pollution that is associated with the burning of fossil fuels, the tremendous experiences and dangers of nuclear power, and a variety of other reasons. In developing countries the first reason is of particular importance because their industrial development, coming at a time of low cost plentiful oil supplies, has resulted in greater reliance on this single source of energy than is true in the developed countries, despite the fact that the latter use tremendously larger quantities. For industrialized countries such as the United
States, practical and economically competitive alternative energy systems already exist that could replace the entire nuclear power contribution to U.S. energy supplies. (Editor's note: Wood space heating stoves [selling 1-2 million units a year] (surpassed nuclear power in total contribution to U.S. energy supplies in 1980!)
For village level applications, there are many promising existing technologies. The five sections which follow explore of these in more depth: sun, wind, water, wood and biogas. These technologies are small-scale and necessarily decentralized . This, rather than any other technical inferiority, is the primary. reason earlier forms of these technologies were eventually passed over in the industrialized countries. While these systems cannot very effectively be used for the power needs of large industry, they can be well suited to the needs of villages and small communities. They can be low in cost relatively simple in construction and maintenance, made of materials available in villages and small towns, and non-polluting.
With each price increase in the worlds diminishing oil supply, renewable energy sources are made more attractive. The decentralized supply of these renewable energy sources wind power, solar energy, water power and biofuels matches the decentralized settlements of the rural South. Planners and program administrators are increasingly convinced that these technologies have a major role in the energy supplies of rural communities.
Rays of Hope makes the argument that the exponential increases in energy consumption characteristic of industrial societies cannot continue, and therefore industrial development in all countries will have to shift towards decentralization, conservation, improved energy conversion efficiency, and better matching of energy quality to end use needs.
Other books in this section review the most attractive renewable energy technologies likely to fit the circumstances in the rural South. Renewable Energy Resources and Rural Applications in the Developing World also notes the domestic and foreign policy implications that come with choice of energy strategy. Energy for Development: Third World Options points specifically to reforestation programs for fuelwood and soil conservation as high priorities in energy planning. A catalog of commercially available small-scale power generating equipment, entitled The Power Guide, has been introduced by ITDG. This book includes both renewable energy devices and diesel and gasoline engines. A good place to find an overview of technology options is in Renewable Energy Technologies: Their Applications in Developing Countries, which includes coverage of some of the lesser known choices such as briquetting of agricultural wastes and use of vegetable oils as an engine fuel.
The increasing acceptance of an important role for renewable energy systems, noted earlier, has led to proliferation of pilot projects. Economic feasibility has not been properly considered in many of these projects, a fault perhaps most common in large international and bilateral aid agencies, who should know better. The Economics of Renewable Energy Systems for Developing Countries offers three case studies illustrating this problem, and a methodology for evaluating the economic appeal of any renewable energy project. Author David French notes that, in particular, large agencies seem to have forgotten that most of the rural poor do not use commercial fuels and thus cannot simply switch cash payments towards the purchase of new equipment:
"Most renewable energy devices now tend to be attractive primarily to people already using costly commercial power. Just as is happening in the United States, for example, some Third World city-dwellers are discovering that solar energy may be cheaper than electricity for heating water .... Such systems will be of greatest use to the wealthy; there is little reason to suppose they will be of comparable interest to the poor."
In the rural South, most of the energy used is in the form of firewood and crop residues gathered and burned in cooking fires. Low-cost locally built cooking stoves can greatly increase the efficiency of cooking, reducing the demand for fuelwood up to 40%. This would both slow the rate of deforestation and lighten the burden of long distance wood hauling. Technologies that use local materials and skills, such as improved wood stoves and village wood lots, are more likely to be immediately affordable than expensive devices such as solar pumps, photovoltaic systems, and biogas plants in almost all cases.