Why Renewable Energy in Southeast Asia?
Updated: Jan 28
As the global population and economy grow, energy demand also increases. Southeast Asian countries total final energy consumption is expected to increase by 38 per cent by 2025 and 146 per cent by 2040 in business-as-usual scenario. Rapid population and economic growth pose a challenge for Southeast Asian countries to secure and sustain an affordable energy scenario with minimal detrimental effects on the environment. Despite improvements in the electrification rate, 45 million people in the region still lack electricity. Many have written about the need to transition to cleaner and more sustainable energy sources, yet fossil fuels still dominate the regional energy mix. Coal, which is harmful to the environment and public health, remains the largest share in the region's energy mix.
While common sensical, the following sections will remind us why we urgently need to transition to renewables as a means to mitigate the effects of climate change and to achieve long-term sustainable and equitable development.
Renewable energy and the energy trilemma
The utilization of renewable energy (RE) sources is one solution to address such an “energy trilemma” or an energy problem of balancing the three energy sustainability goals, namely energy security, energy equity, and environmental sustainability. Renewables are alternative energy sources that can help mitigate their impact on climate change and contribute to positive health outcomes in a population by decreasing air pollution, creating a sustainable environment, and eventually reducing the effects of climate change. The decreasing cost of renewable sources, particularly solar energy, can encourage more investments and large-scale deployments.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), RE plays a crucial role in societies’ transition to be less carbon-intensive and more sustainable energy systems. Renewable energy adoption can decrease the world's dependence on fossil fuels and inefficient coal-fired power plants, contributing to the unliveable global greenhouse gas emissions levels. This is also one reason why the adoption of RE is one of the main building blocks of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The production of clean and renewable energy can achieve "90 percent of the energy-related carbon dioxide emission reductions required to meet the central goals of the Paris Agreement."
Renewable energy and rural electrification
Apart from serving as an alternative energy source while mitigating the impacts of climate change, renewable energy is also used to electrify energy-poor rural areas, specifically in island communities. It is one of the solutions to address the lack of energy access to rural communities. Energy access is linked to rural areas' socio-economic and geographical conditions, which suffer from poverty and the absence of connectivity with on-grid energy sources. The United Nations (UN) emphasizes the need to address this lack of energy access through the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number seven which is for governments to ensure access to clean, affordable, reliable and modern energy. Investments in renewable energy projects are one of the solutions provided by the UN.
Renewable energy and climate change resilience
In developing countries, the UN Development Program (UNDP) deems it necessary to distinguish renewable energy technology (RET) development into two areas: on-grid and off-grid areas. Specifically, off-grid areas refer to communities with no access to the national power grid, mainly because of a lack of energy infrastructure. For example, the Philippines and Indonesia's archipelagic geography complicates the establishment of power infrastructure that can reach rural communities across islands. Off-grid islands depend heavily on diesel fuels, charcoal, oil lamps, and kerosene as their primary sources of power and electricity. These traditional fuels are expensive and can pose health hazards to users through indoor air pollution.
RETs are increasingly mobilized to build energy resilience, especially in disaster-vulnerable areas like the rural coastal areas of the region. On-grid energy systems are often adversely affected during natural disasters. Electricity indispensable to post-disaster recovery is often limited and takes longer to be restored. The recent Typhoon Rai ("Odette") in the Philippines and the flash flood in Malaysia showed that power sources and infrastructures are usually the first ones affected but take longer to recover. Depending on the area affected, restoring electricity supplies could take weeks or even months.
Due to these challenges, renewables can be alternative energy sources for both immediate and long-term recovery under the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) framework. Being part of the HADR framework, renewable energy can improve the community's productivity and security, especially during post-disaster recovery and strengthen its communication capabilities that are essential to get accurate and fast relief and aid. In a few instances, access to renewable electricity can enable financial savings. After the RETs were installed, the households could save a considerable portion of their daily income. Funds that would have been spent from lighting and mobile phone charging were used to buy food, clothing, and other essential goods.
The COVID-19 health crisis has also highlighted that electricity security and resilient energy systems are vital to combat a global pandemic and safeguard public health. Energy security is a cornerstone of our economies, especially in turbulent times. An interrupted electricity supply is vital for powering essential services like healthcare, information and technologies, and telecommunications, especially during the pandemic. For some countries with flexible grids, renewables are given priority and are not required to adjust their energy output to match the energy demand—this insulates the renewable energy sources from the low electricity demand during the crisis compared to fossil fuels.
Renewable energy and sustainable development
Having access to clean, affordable, and renewable energy can improve the living conditions in impoverished communities. In addition, renewable energy can enable productive socio-economic activities in communities. For example, solar-powered freezers can be economically advantageous for fisherfolk in coastal areas because of the amount of money and energy they can save using these devices.
A typical household on a remote island in the Philippines pays around USD 0.70 to 1.20 per day for diesel-powered electricity. Most off-grid communities are low-income families with either farming or fishing as their primary source of livelihood—a fisherman's average daily wage is USD 3.44. If more complementary and appropriate renewable energy technologies are used to enable these communities' livelihood, long-term social development may be achieved. Providing energy is more than just delivering power to the poor; it also boosts employment, sustains local businesses, and improves other community services. Therefore, electricity provision is a part of a broader development strategy to alleviate poverty in general. International development organisations like the UN, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank treat RET's adoption as critical in achieving sustainable development. With appropriate policy interventions, financial frameworks, and long-term engagement with the communities, renewable energy technologies can serve as "enablers" towards a more inclusive and long-term social development rather than just tools for everyday survival.
Communities can transition from using traditional energy sources to more sustainable energy. However, deploying the hardware components of an RET system, i.e. solar panels, alone will not ensure long-term renewable energy adoption. Any clean and renewable energy intervention should invest in the people who use and adopt these renewable energy technologies. Business and financing schemes should also be tailored to address not only the short-term energy needs of the communities but to improve the overall quality of life in these energy-poor areas.
In summary, renewables serve as alternative energy sources that can help mitigate climate change and lead to less carbon-intensive societies. They also play a significant role in addressing the considerable problems of off-grid rural areas: the lack of energy access. Renewable energy adoption can contribute to the strengthening of energy resilience in disaster-vulnerable areas of the region. It can also serve as immediate energy relief and possibly, a long-term clean and renewable energy source for disaster-vulnerable areas and during a pandemic crisis. Finally, with proper and appropriate policy intervention and financial frameworks, renewable energy adoption could provide rural communities energy access and resilience and lead to long-term and inclusive development. Using renewable energy sources can enable sustainable development for low-income rural areas. This is provided that the deployment of such technologies matches the local resources, socio-economic needs and conditions of the rural poor.
The views and opinions expressed in the piece do not represent the author's institute. The analysis is an excerpt from the author's doctorate dissertation thesis available at: https://scholarbank.nus.edu.sg/handle/10635/188047
Dr Mary Ann Quirapas Franco is a Research Fellow of the Energy Studies Institute, National University of Singapore. Her work focuses on the impacts of adopting sustainable energy technologies in the Southeast Asia region.