Energy studies urge poor nations to pursue solar-power development

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Is report recommends several strategies for enhancing the contribution of fuel wood and charcoal to meeting the energy needs of the developing regions. They re based on the assumption that, in order to be effective, all programs for wood-based energy need to be integrated with rural development. They include the introduction of conservation-oriented technologies, the establishment of the necessary rural infrastructure, and the involvement of the villagers (especially the women) in local decisionmaking.

Multipurpose tree species (fodder, fruit, fuel wood, and poles) are recommended by the report, together with the introduction of technical support and financial incentives to local communities and farmers, encouraging them to grow trees for fuel.

The panels wants to explore the development of alternative fodder supplies, the training of village-level forest extension staff, and improvement of access to potential fuel-wood resources.

Related recommendations are put forward by the panel on biomass energy.

Its report emphasizes the importance of assessing the environmental, social, and institutional problems which might result from biomass energy schemes. It cautions against the introduction of new technologies without the involvement of the local people. Most important, it says, planners must ask themselves in advance who would benefit from any projected technological change.

But, like the other specialist panels, it wants early action. Despite the long tradition and the accumulated experience in the use of biomass as a fuel, the panel says that more efficient possible conversion and end-use technologies should be developed as soon as possible.

It calls for the collection and dissemination of comparative scientific data on plant yields, the identification of plants suitable specifically for energy production, and early arrangements for increased regional collaboration.

Regional accord is the main issue also of the report issued by the specialist panel on hydropower. It seeks international acceptance of efficient general principles for the harvesting of hydroelectric potential of many suitable trans-border rivers. It suggests that agreement should evolve within the framework of the UN system. But it considers hydropower in the context of national water- resource development policies and urges each nation to establish its own hydrological and meteorological networks as soon as possible.

The oil shale and tar sands panel also urges an early start in the development of these resources, which may well be abundantly available in many regions. It expresses concern over anticipated socio-economic problems and possibly irreversible environmental effects associated with their exploration. The report calls for caution and further analysis.

Economic rather than technological issues -- such as the lack of sufficient finance, training, and advanced technology available to the developing countries -- are blamed by the study for the prolonged delay in tapping these energy sources.

These conditions may change, however, in the foreseeable future when the rapid continuing decline of the Globe's remaining oil reserves is expected to make these u nconventional fuels econo mically attractive.

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