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Developing nations: First, find your 'green' energy, then develop it

Many developing countries have immense wind and solar resources, but lack the data and infrastructure to harness them. A new project from The World Bank aims to change that, partnering with nine countries to develop more sustainable energy strategies.

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The findings give new urgency to plumbing global opportunities not just for more energy – but for more sustainable energy, where progress has lagged in much of the developing world. The 48 countries in sunny and windy sub-Saharan Africa, for example, have harnessed a wind and solar power output similar to Spain's, even though they have a population 20 times as large, according to the African Development Bank Group.

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Staff Writer

Elizabeth Barber is a staff writer at The Christian Science Monitor. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and English from SUNY Geneseo. Before coming to the Monitor, she was a freelance reporter at DNAinfo, a New York City breaking news site. She has also been an intern at The Cambodia Daily, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and at Washington D.C.’s The Middle East Journal.

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“We expect this initiative to be highly catalytic,” Oliver Knight, senior energy specialist at the World Bank's Energy Sector Management Assistance Program, said in a press release. “Resource mapping is a crucial step in providing the resource and policy certainty that commercial developers need to scale up investment in renewables. 

Over the next four years, the Renewable Energy Mapping Program aims to map the solar, wind, biomass, and small hydropower potential of each of the partnering countries, all of which are in Africa or Asia. The initiative hopes to build on sparse existing data on available resources, beginning with on-the-ground-based data collection. To collect solar and wind resource data, for example, researchers will install wind masts and pyrometers (which measure solar energy) at strategic points in the regions. That data will then be mapped in a visual representation of resources and incorporated into state-specific strategies for clean-energy use.

Still, the reasons for which sustainable development initiatives have stalled in the world’s poor corridors are broader than a lack of data. The bigger challenge: Fossil fuels remain cheaper than renewable energy options and are still more accessible for developing countries.

“One thing to be concerned about with development is that the pattern and shape of the developed world would not exist without fossil fuels, and the developing world is going to replicate that unless something changes,” Scott Barrett, an economist at Columbia University, said in a telephone interview.

Though the world’s rich countries have pledged substantial sums for renewables development in the developing world, there is no formal system in which they can encourage it by paying the difference between cheap fossil fuels and more expensive renewable energy sources, Professor Barrett said. Until then, even with the World Bank’s new data, cheap fossil fuels will often remain the most attractive option in fiscally strapped countries, he said.

The participating countries are Indonesia, Lesotho, Madagascar, Maldives, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, Vietnam, and Zambia. 

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