Study conducted by Poli-USP and RCGI researchers, in conjunction with those from Australia’s University of Queensland, lays out the main challenges for the technology of renewable sources created in developed countries, which is becoming implemented, in fact, in those having low-and-middle-income levels.

If, on the one hand, developed countries have a good command of technologies for renewable energy sources, which are essential for the decarbonization of the electricity sector, low- and middle-income countries continue to struggle to implement them. In developing countries, energy transition is proceeding at a slow pace, even though sustainable development agendas, such as Agenda 21 and 2030, and the multilateral Paris agreement, provide a series of goals and targets to make the electricity sector more sustainable throughout the world.

One of the obstacles that make this transition difficult is the replication of energy planning models in a way that is disconnected from the reality of those countries. This is shown by a study published in Energy Magazine, which was conducted by researchers from the Energy Group of the Department of Energy Engineering and Electrical Automation (GEPEA) of the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (Poli-USP), the FAPESP Research Center for Gas Innovation (RCGI), and the University of Queensland, Australia.

Change of focus – “When discussing energy transition, one refers to a series of solutions found in the international literature, which is much more focused on studies performed in developed countries. Therefore, these discussions stand at a distance from the reality of low- and middle-income countries. While developed countries talk about consumer autonomy, other countries are still struggling to give access to any type of electricity to part of their population,” states Stefania Gomes Relva, a researcher at Poli-USP and author of the study.

“Thus, it is not enough to promote the transfer of technology. There is a need for models and strategic planning that are different from those adopted in the global North and, above all, for stimulus mechanisms that take into account other needs, such as the formation of the internal market and labor force that is qualified to keep the plants renewable and self-sufficient,” she points out.

In other words: for technology transfer to work and, consequently, for the transition to a low-carbon and more sustainable electricity sector, it is necessary to focus on developing countries, and not simple those that are developed. “We have many international agreements, and we are all aware of the disparity between the global South and North, but this is hardly ever or never discussed in these technology transfer agreements,” says Drielli Peyerl, a young FAPESP researcher at the RCGI and co-author of the study.

Main challenges – To track this disconnect between the proposed innovations and what is actually implemented in developing countries, the researchers performed a review of the literature, focusing on articles emphasizing energy transition issues in low- and middle-income countries.

Of the 625 articles initially analyzed, 85 were selected that dealt with projects and demands for energy transition in developing countries, regions, or economic blocks in the global south. Based on this, the researchers collected information that answered the question: which elements drive or delay energy transition in developing countries?

“With this approach, we gained a comprehensive view of how these various information sources are related to each other, which enabled a broader scope for the analysis of what was being presented in these articles. We were able to map the characteristic elements of energy transition in developing countries and, from these elements, we identified the main challenges,” Ms. Relva explains.

Common problems – In the analysis, the researchers discovered that, when planning for energy transition, such aspects as corruption, economic unpredictability, the formation of expertise, and the domestic market in low- and middle-income countries must also be considered.

“Corruption is a hot topic in Brazil, and we realize that it is also a very common subject under debate in other developing countries. They face a lack of political transparency and highly unstable economies, as well, with an economic profile that varies rapidly,” says Vinícius Oliveira da Silva, a researcher at Poli-USP and co-author of the study.

Silva explains that while developed countries have consolidated economies and greater planning capacity, developing countries suffer from instability, with such sudden upward and downward variations that it is difficult to make economic growth projections from one year to another. “In this sense, it is much easier for developed countries to plan for the long term and implement change in the energy sector. Here, however, it is difficult to even define a trend,” he says.

Another important issue regarding this disconnect between realities has to do with energy efficiency. Developed countries associate energy efficiency with end-use energy equipment. However, in the global South, the system is so incipient that much greater losses occur in the transmission and distribution of electricity. The study also presents a graph of the levels of energy loss in high-, middle-, and low-income countries. “Those losses are also related to the number of illegal electrical hook-ups in low- and middle-income countries. Since we lose much more energy in the transport process, it is no longer possible to copy a model similar to that of developed countries,” says Ms. Relva.

In this context, researchers suggest greater interaction between low- and middle-income countries for exchanging experiences or research on the implementation of new energy sources. “We need to create our own models instead of simply importing them. By creating domestic models, it is possible to exchange these experiences with countries in the same bloc – what we call South-South cooperation – in order to share these technologies,” Peyerl says.

As she sees it, although the proposal seems to be quite simple, this requires a change in the logic with which the energy transition in the electricity sector has been carried out, globally, in recent years. “Of course, we need the collaboration of developed countries, but it’s not just financial help or support for replicating models. Significant change is needed to create self-sufficiency and to form an internal market in those countries. If this is not done, for example, the transfer of technology will continue to fall short of expectations,” she concludes.

The article published in Energy Magazine may be read by accessing this link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0360544220327663