Asia & Pacific

  • Set up ‘smart villages’ to combat climate change

    Michael Price

    19/12/15

Speed read

  • COP21 results provide hope to small island nations

  • Energy access is crucial for human development and climate change adaptation

  • The smart villages approach offers options for development using clean energy

The plight of the small island developing states was centre stage throughout the Paris climate talks. Thanks to them, the Paris agreement now mentions an aspirational goal of keeping global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, an unexpected and welcome result for communities that would face inundation in a world warmed by an extra 2 degrees Celsius.

What are the current prospects for these small island developing states and for the small island communities in larger developing countries in South-East Asia, such as Indonesia or the Philippines’ tens of thousands of islands?

The Paris agreement notes that countries must consider “the right to development…and the rights of people in vulnerable situations”, as well as making an explicit link to goal seven of the sustainable development goals — ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

For both the purposes of human development, and climate change adaptation and mitigation, energy access is crucial.

How then should we approach the electrification ratio of mostly below 50 per cent in the remote rural and island communities of Indonesia, and the ratios well below 30 per cent in the islands of Vanuatu, the Solomons, or Papua New Guinea?

The smart villages approach

The smart villages approach, an analogy to the more familiar “smart city”, maintains that energy access can act as a catalyst for other improvements in quality of life. These range from improved communications technologies to better health, education and local economic outcomes. The concept attempts to answer questions about how to best facilitate improvements in community life, and how to overcome barriers to energy access.

“We must help these communities help themselves to the increased climate resilience and better living that access to clean energy can bring, and we must do it as fast as possible.”

By Michael Price


Applying the smart villages approach to island communities must consider a unique set of challenges and opportunities. Electricity means ice for fisherfolk, enabling them to fish less often and sell their catch before spoilage. It also means copra production to facilitate the drying and processing of coconut products. It means fresh water from electric well pumps and powered desalination plants. Electricity is the ability to add value to an island’s primary produce before exporting it immediately to the mainland.

Currently, where island electricity exists at all, diesel dominates the energy landscape. This will change. What then are the replacement technologies that are going to provide electricity in the future? And how should we approach the need for renewable energies in light of a continually low global oil price?

When analysing the “levelised cost of energy” — the cost for a certain technology to produce a certain amount of energy over the course of its lifetime — unsubsidised diesel generators (or any other liquid fossil-fuel generators) come out worse off than renewables such as photovoltaics or micro-hydro generators in many island contexts, although naturally each community should be analysed on a case-by-case basis.

In the case of solar energy, we must include energy storage in the equation. When this is done for a moderately sized mini/microgrid, hybrid solar-diesel generators are often the most financially attractive option. With current predictions for reductions in battery storage costs, replacing the diesel for electric batteries could be cheaper by 2017, depending on the energy demand of the specific system (and the future price of oil).

It is also worth noting that none of the major forecasters are predicting the price of oil to drop much below its current price. We should also consider the benefits of freeing communities from fluctuating oil prices and providing added resilience against extreme weather. In Vanuatu, in the aftermath of cyclone Pam in 2015, villagers were left without power for days as they waited for emergency diesel shipments.

Fossil fuel subsidies

Fossil fuel subsidies are a major barrier to deployment of clean technologies. It is inexcusable that they are an economic staple in many developing countries. With 40 per cent of the benefits of these subsidies accruing to the richest 20 per cent, and only 7 per cent going to the poorest 20 per cent, it is widely acknowledged that they are an inefficient means of helping the poor.

The challenges to removing subsidies are obvious. In situations where there is a large number of generators and a reliance on small petrol-powered motorboats, a decrease in oil subsidies will have a significant impact. Governments must work with communities and take their needs into account when transferring their oil subsidy from fossil fuel to cleaner technologies.

In Paris, there was evidence of gathering momentum for fossil fuel subsidy reform, with the presentation of a communiqué on the subject backed by over 40 countries and 23 global corporate leaders.

We need to be smart in advocating for accelerated energy access. Without buy-in and support from the local community, and without building local technical capacity, projects are likely to fail.

On a recent visit to the small Indonesian island of Bunaken, I observed a 360 kilowatt-peak hybrid solar-diesel minigrid system. The system consisted of hundreds of solar panels and two large diesel generator sets, enough to provide power to the 4,000 villagers living on the island. But when we arrived there, it was only generating energy for just one house. The local technician had been waiting for over two months for the parts needed to repair the large diesel generators. A strong community-level engagement in energy provision could help speed up dialogue and repairs from state-owned or private electricity providers.

The Paris agreement included provision for US$100 billion a year to go to developing countries for adaptation and mitigation. Work needs to be done to ensure that small-scale village level projects are able to access these funds, in the correct way, and that they are not overlooked in favour of less challenging mega-projects.

Events in Paris were an important step towards protecting a unique and beautiful way of life for many islands in the Pacific and South-East Asia. We must keep in mind the principles and key reasons for adopting the agreement. It is important to maintain a focus on the development of the states that the agreement was designed to protect.

We must help these communities help themselves to the increased climate resilience and better living that access to clean energy can bring, and we must do it as fast as possible.

Michael Price is a research associate with the Smart Villages Initiative. He currently based at the Department of Physics, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, where he spent his PhD studying the physics of new types of solar cells and light emitting devices. His work focused on the properties of semiconducting organic-inorganic perovskites, a new material that promises cheap, solution-processed solar panels with high efficiencies. He was present at the Paris climate negotiations.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.