Under the sun: Children shelter beneath a solar panel in Dharnai village.
Under the sun: Children shelter beneath a solar panel in Dharnai village.
Photo: Vivek M. / Greenpeace

India: a beacon in the gloom

In the Bihar region, more than 80 per cent of the population have no access to electricity. Dharnai village is no longer part of that statistic. In 2014, after 30 years of reliance on wood, cow dung and kerosene, the lights came on in Dharnai thanks to a solar-powered microgrid installed by Greenpeace India. The village’s 450 households, 50 businesses, 60 streetlights, two schools and health centre are now all connected to the grid, providing over 2,000 people with 24-hour access to electricity. The 100 KW system with battery storage is managed by a 20-person Village Electrification Committee, which has a 25 per cent minimum quota of female members and representation from people of various castes. The committee sets the tariffs, aiming to make them low enough to be affordable while still covering the operating and maintenance costs of the system, including the training and employment of villagers as engineers. nin.tl/indiamicrogrid

Smart Grids: automatic for the people?

In a renewable future, we’ll need to get better at using the right energy at the right time. When the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, we’ll have big spikes in electricity supply from our turbines and panels; some of that can be stored or turned into other useful energy products like hydrogen, but it’s much more efficient to use the electricity then and there. This is where ‘smart metering’ and ‘dynamic demand control’ come in. These technologies can detect when there’s surplus power in the grid, and time the cooling cycles of our fridges and freezers, and the running times of our washing machines to match it. This idea raises understandable concerns about data security (if our energy supplier knows how often we do the washing, can they sell that information to Unilever?), but would create significant energy savings and may have other benefits. Industry analyst Jeremy Rifkin foresees a new collaborative energy commons, with homes, businesses, schools and hospitals connected by a ‘smart grid’ that shares energy automatically back and forth to where it’s needed. If more buildings have their own renewable power generation (such as solar panels) and energy storage (such as batteries), then this interconnected web of small producers and consumers could take a significant load off our national electricity grids, reducing reliance on centralized power stations. nin.tl/electricalefficiency

B9’s sustainable ship design.
B9’s sustainable ship design.
B9 Shipping

US/Britain: sailing into view

Could we see a return to the age of sail? Around 10 billion tonnes of cargo – 90 per cent of international trade – was moved between nations by sea in 2014, with several billion more being shipped within countries. International ships are powered almost exclusively by fossil fuels and produce around two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than almost any country. In response, sail transport initiatives have been springing up around the world. Some have a local focus, like the Salish Sea Trading Co-operative, a sailor-owned project transporting local products around Puget Sound in the US state of Washington. Based in Seattle, they use exclusively sail-powered vessels but are fundraising for a purpose-built hybrid boat with a back-up electric engine. If replicated widely, this kind of initiative could cut a significant chunk out of coastal transport emissions.

Others have their sights set on international trade. The British-based B9 Shipping has designed a 4,500-tonne capacity container ship, powered by 55-metre high sails with a back-up engine fuelled by waste gas, which could be a serious contender for cleaner global trade. Ultimately, they hope to build ships with a capacity of 25,000 tonnes. Projects on this scale, however, are difficult to launch without the involvement and support of big players in the existing ‘old economy’ – the engine was designed by Rolls Royce, and B9 needs to confirm some major freight contracts before it can afford to start building ships. International Windship Association: wind-ship.org

Norway: system overload?

There’s mixed news from Norway, as new legislation to encourage the use of electric cars has proved too successful. In 2013, cuts in purchase tax and VAT on electric cars, combined with access to free charging points, exemption from road tolls, subsidies for home charging points and the freedom to drive in bus lanes led to an explosion in sales. Nearly 13 per cent of all cars sold in Norway in 2014 were electric, and they now make up around 1 per cent of the cars on the road. However, while it’s encouraging to see how a new, cleaner technology can rapidly become popular, the benefits of this have been questionable. The take-up was far greater and faster than expected, leading to bus lanes clogged with electric cars and higher public costs than planned. Critics point out that investing the same amount in electric buses would have led to greater emission savings and less, instead of more, congestion. This could be seen as a cautionary tale about designing legislation to fit with existing, unsustainable systems (like mass car ownership) instead of taking action to change those systems.

Heavily charged: battery storage bank on the Isle of Eigg.
Heavily charged: battery storage bank on the Isle of Eigg.
Ashley Cooper pics / Alamy

Scotland: hatching alternatives on the Isle of Eigg

The Isle of Eigg may be small (5 by 9 kilometres, population just under 100), but it has some big lessons for us all. Located off the west coast of Scotland, the island was owned by a series of absentee landlords through the 1970s and 1980s, whose neglect created serious problems for the island’s residents. In 1997, the community succeeded in a bold plan to buy back the island for themselves. After achieving community control, the residents set up the world’s first-ever 100-per-cent renewable electricity grid. Every home on the island is now powered by a mixture of wind, small hydro and solar power, with a battery bank that can store 24 hours of back-up, all managed and maintained by a community-owned company.

Islands in the sun

In 2012, the small island principality of Tokelau switched over to 100-per-cent solar electricity (with battery storage) for its 1,500 inhabitants. The installation was funded by the New Zealand government, which controls the territory. Other island nations are aiming to follow suit: the Cook Islands, Niue, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Aruba, Dominica, St Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, St Lucia and the Maldives have all set the target of becoming 100-per-cent renewable by 2020. How democratically controlled this energy will be will depend on the local politics and people of each nation; however, the potential for community influence and control over local solar projects is certainly greater than for imported fossil fuels.

What are they smoking? Drax power station.
What are they smoking? Drax power station.
Photo: Paula Solloway / Alamy

Britain: Drax the destroyer

Drax power station in North Yorkshire burns more coal than any other power plant in Britain – and now more wood than any other plant in the world. Drax has converted one of its six units to run on wood pellets, and so now burns through pellets made from five million tonnes of fresh ‘green’ wood per year. This is the equivalent of half of Britain’s annual wood production. Drax’s woodfuel is currently imported from the US and Canada, from regions infamous for the mass destruction of intact forests for pellet production. This form of electricity generation cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered ‘renewable’ – it’s a one-way process of tearing down forests to feed power stations. Despite this, wood power stations are supported by government targets and subsidies in North America and Europe, and are set to expand; Drax itself wants to at least triple its wood intake, up to 1.5 times the level of British wood production. Perversely, because wood from any source is treated as ‘low carbon’ by EU rules, this partial switch to pellets allows coal plants like Drax to claim they have reduced their emissions, allowing them to stay open, burning both coal and forests, for years longer than would have otherwise been allowed. nin.tl/globalforest-drax

Germany: taking back power

In 2013, there were two landmark referendums in the German cities of Hamburg and Berlin. Citizens in both towns, sick of being exploited and polluted by commercial power providers, put forward proposals for their city councils to buy back their respective local energy grids. This ‘municipalization’ of energy would bring local energy provision back under democratic control, and commit to a transition to 100-per-cent clean power.

Voters in Berlin were overwhelmingly in favour, with 83 per cent backing the proposal. However, the turnout was four per cent lower than the total required for the vote to be legally binding (many local campaigners blame the city government for not allowing the vote to take place on the same day as the general election, when turnout would have been higher). The story is not over yet though, because a clean energy co-operative called Berlin Citizens’ Energy is now vying to take over the grid, with some support from city authorities. In Hamburg, meanwhile, the municipalization vote was a success, and the transition to greater renewable supply is under way. Hamburg joins 170 German municipalities that have reportedly brought their electricity grids back under local control since 2007.

Going with the flow: Tri Mumpuni Iskandar (front row, second from right), from IBEKA with villagers at the launch of a microhydro project in Aceh, Indonesia.
Going with the flow: Tri Mumpuni Iskandar (front row, second from right), from IBEKA with villagers at the launch of a microhydro project in Aceh, Indonesia.

Indonesia: coming on stream

Around 70 million people in Indonesia have no reliable electricity supply. While the national electricity supplier PLN struggles to extend the grid beyond the towns and cities, mountain villagers are beginning to take matters into their own hands. With the support of NGOs like the People Centred Business and Economic Institute (IBEKA), small-scale hydropower co-operatives are springing up around the country. Typically, NGO engineers assess the site and build the system in collaboration with the villagers; at the end of the process, the community takes ownership of the hydro turbine and the power it generates. The electricity is then distributed locally, with tariffs set by the co-operative to cover the maintenance costs of the system; villages with a grid connection can also sell surplus power to PLN, following a successful national campaign to make such purchases a legal requirement for the company.

US: corn crackers

The US is the world’s biggest producer of corn, growing almost as much as China and Brazil combined. Currently, about 40 per cent of that colossal corn crop is being transformed into ethanol and mixed into the country’s vehicle fuel supply. Over 100 million tonnes of US corn per year – almost twice as much as the EU’s entire annual harvest – is feeding cars, not people. This is the result of a target set by Congress in 2005, to replace 10 per cent of US gasoline with ethanol. This huge redirection of food into fuel is widely considered to be a failure for everyone except for ethanol processors and US corn growers. It has led to increased food prices, with a knock-on effect on hunger around the world. The climate benefits are dubious at best – once all the energy and chemicals required to grow and process the fuel are taken into account, corn ethanol produces only slightly less greenhouse gas than petroleum. Taking so much corn out of the system reduces the global food supply, meaning that extra land must be carved out for farming elsewhere, leading to the loss of forests and wetlands – the so-called ILUC (Indirect Land Use Change) effect; when this is added to the equation, corn ethanol may be worse for the climate than fossil fuels. It hasn’t even given US consumers cheaper fuel, thanks to the low oil price. A new proposal to drop the ethanol blending mandate was introduced to the US Senate in January, but failed to get the necessary support.

No dam way: Indigenous peoples protest at the International Hydropower Association conference on Borneo.
No dam way: Indigenous peoples protest at the International Hydropower Association conference on Borneo.
epa european pressphoto agency b.v. / Alamy

Brazil and Borneo: dam nations

Megadams in tropical regions are a definite contender for the worst renewable energy source ever. As if mass human displacement, habitat destruction, the ruining of livelihoods and the theft of water from downstream communities weren’t bad enough, these dams aren’t even good for the climate. Flooding vast areas of forest creates a reservoir filled with vegetation; this gradually rots, releasing huge amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Recent research suggests that tropical dams may be worse for the climate than coal power stations. Despite this, huge dam projects are being pushed ahead throughout the world. The notorious Belo Monte Dam in Brazil is due for completion in 2015, despite decades of opposition from Indigenous peoples and international NGOs. It will flood 1,500 square kilometres of Brazilian rainforest and displace up to 40,000 people. In Malaysian Borneo, however, the fight is still very much ongoing. Indigenous Kenyah, Kayan and Penan people have blockaded roads and construction sites in protest at plans for 12 dams in the province of Sarawak that would destroy their homes, along with 1,600 square kilometres of rainforest. These battles can be won; in 2014, the Chilean government was forced to cancel five huge dams proposed for the Aysén River in Patagonia, following nationwide protests. nin.tl/borneostopdams

Danny Chivers