University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Well-researched investment in renewable energy can improve global equity

In many low- and lower-middle-income countries, great natural wealth contrasts with a desire for economic development.

Noah Kittner, is an assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, where he examines the relationship between energy systems, low-carbon development and human health.

In two recent publications, he explores the ideal balance of wind, solar and hydropower in Myanmar and discusses financial compensation for solar energy generation in the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

Kittner is a co-author of “Joint strategic energy and river basin planning to reduce dam impacts on rivers in Myanmar,” published online by the high-impact journal Environmental Research Letters.

In Myanmar, which has the last free-flowing rivers in all of Asia, there is an ongoing struggle to balance development with natural conservation — and the top question now is how future large hydropower projects would impact people and the environment.

In the paper, Kittner and his co-authors share evidence that solar and wind power offer more equitable and less environmentally damaging energy systems for Myanmar than proposed mega-dams.

“We have been identifying alternative energy pathways to large-scale hydropower and coal investments in Myanmar,” he says. “This is a method that can be applied for other area’s power systems planning, as well, and we are looking to implement our findings across multiple river basins. Solar electricity can be a cleaner and healthier energy alternative than large-scale hydropower, and better river planning strategies will lead to better outcomes for both the environment and the communities whose livelihoods are dependent on river systems.”

Kittner also is the corresponding author of “A cross-country comparison of compensation mechanisms for distributed photovoltaics in the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam,” published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. This paper evaluates the equity impacts across three Southeast Asian countries for electricity customers who choose to install solar photovoltaics in their homes or businesses.

Globally, financial support mechanisms for distributed photovoltaic (DPV) systems are evolving rapidly. These three countries are working to adjust their DPV programs to match the larger market while incorporating new technologies. The paper co-authors suggest that a system called net billing could achieve more economically equitable policy design in these and other Southeast Asian countries looking to make solar electricity broadly accessible for all.

“These studies strive to identify solutions where renewable energy can improve equity outcomes for communities across Southeast Asia,” Kittner explains. “Just because renewable energy is added to the grid doesn’t mean the impacts are all positive. We find that for renewable energy to benefit low-income households and those whose livelihoods depend on free-flowing rivers, there may need to be local policies and compensation mechanisms. These measures can benefit the most vulnerable populations and increase bill savings for low-income households that could benefit from being able to generate their own electricity.”

“We are so happy to have Gillings faculty like Noah shaping policies and programs on global environmental health,” says Suzanne Maman, associate dean for global health at the Gillings School. “The strong health equity lens that he brings to his work on alternative energy is critical in how we address the growing climate change challenges in low-resource settings.”

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