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Energy studies urge poor nations to pursue solar-power development

By Thomas LandSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 1981


Even the poorest of the oil-deficient developing countries should establish their own solar-power data collection systems without delay, urges a study by an eminent group of international specialists.

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The report is o ne of several which analyze various aspects of new and renewable energy resources, published in preparation for a world conference in Nairobi, Kenya, in August.

The Kenya meeting is designed to benefit all regions, but it is likely to pay the closest attention to the needs of the poorest and mainly agricultural developing nations.

Many poor countries now are passing through relatively intense periods of energy consumption, spending on the average more than a quarter of their export earnings on the import of oil. They can offset the cost by exploring and developing their own energy sources, the specialists assert.

The economic plight of these nations coincides with rapid and spectacular technological developments that make many unconventional energy sources cost-effective for the first time.

Seeking a long-term view, the United Nations has established several groups of specialists whose analyses of the tasks ahead will form the basis of discussions at the Kenya conference in August. The reports map out an immense and profitable sphere of development.

Thus, the technical panel on solar power emphasizes the need for a realistic assessment of potential energy yields by every country in order to avoid expensive delays in development.

Many applications of solar energy in the poor countries have either broken the cost barrier already or are about to do so, demanding priority in further development. These include water heating, pumping, and desalination; crop drying, icemaking, and cold storage, as well as low-power electricity generation for remote settlements.

The panel is optimistic about the future of the still expensive solar cells, but it cautions against overselling. It summarizes the special problems of the introduction of solar-energy application in the developing countries as inadequate information on a available technologies, lack of local manufacturing infrastructure, including trained manpower, and the absence of institutional arrangements for promoting the industry.

It calls for special measures in many developing countries to assure that they reap the benefits of the new technologies.

The authors believe that many early attempts to persuade rural populations to accept solar cookers on a wide scale have failed because of their incompatibility with local customs. They consider the time ripe for renewed demonstrations now, especially because of the currently growing shortage of fuel wood in many areas.

Solar-power technology, however, may not be available on a sufficient scale for some time to provide a viable alternative to the traditional energy sources used by the majority of rural people in the developing countries, argues the panel concerned with fuel wood and charcoal.

The panel forecasts intensifying shortages of wood-based energy during the coming decades. It insists that national and regional energy policies formulated for the future should take account of the immense problems likely to be caused by these shortages despite all preventative measures currently envisaged in other spheres.