But data alone is without exception never the whole story.
When looking at the countries that have the highest share of renewable energy you stumble on interesting discoveries. In the top 20 best in the world, Paraguay and Iceland are the only countries in the list that are not African. And harvesting renewable energy is clean but is it sustainable?
How is this possible? Isn’t it true that when we hear renewable energy, we tend to think of Iceland, Denmark, Germany or other rich countries?
According to the definition used by the International Energy Agency, renewable energy includes: hydro, geothermal, solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, tide, wave, ocean, wind, solid biomass, gases from biomass, liquid biomass and renewable municipal waste. (Source: SSI data set)
It turns out that all top 20 countries fly well because of hydroelectric energy. Massive water dams harvest this energy.
These colossal structures provide renewable and clean energy because the power of streaming water is — if a river doesn’t dry out — endless. These dams can increase countries’ energy independence.
Appealing as it seems when 83% comes from a renewable energy source, the high number is only significant when all this energy is used efficiently. To ask the question of how many people are connected to the grid I gathered data from the World Bank.
Suddenly African countries with high shares of renewable energy look not so good. What does it say when such a small number of the population hasn’t got access to the power from the countries’ expensive hydroelectric projects?
The Said business school embedded in Oxford University did an extensive study in 2014, gathering data from “245 large dams in 65 different countries”. The findings show that:
construction costs of large dams are on average +90% higher than their budgets at the time of approval. This result is before accounting for […] the negative impacts on human society, environment [and] the effects of inflation.
Another big problem is that these projects take a lot of time to realise (most about ten years). They are therefore ineffective to:
solve urgent energy crises, are vulnerable to hyperinflation, political tensions, swings in water availability and electricity prices, a combination of which constitute the typical dam disaster.
The study also has a value judgement on proponents of large water dams: They are called “fools” or “liars” and suffer from “amnesic behaviour”. The study supports these claims because people rooting for dams don’t learn from failures of the past.
When defending the dams for example, proponents appeal on rare positive outliers like ‘the Hoover dam’ in the US.
Instead of relying on the outcome of just one project, decision makers should consider evidence for the entire population. In the case of large dams, the probability of failure dominates. — the study says.
Apart from that these hydroelectric dams are expensive to build, there are also negative impacts they have on ecosystems. Water supplies can be endangered, droughts can occur, and small fishing communities are screwed.
So when solving energy problems, we should come up with more durable, sustainable and achievable resources of harvesting energy. Take the sun, the tide, or the wind.
When analysing the Sustainable Society Index data, I was surprised to see that African countries are top of the list when it comes to renewable energy. But when digging deeper into the terminology and gathering data from different sources, you’ll get a more complete picture behind the numbers.
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