Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 disrupted global energy supplies and hiked prices, many countries have transitioned towards renewable energy to produce energy domestically.

In June 2023, Brussels-based think tank Bruegel said around $828bn had been allocated to European countries to ease consumer stress from soaring energy bills. The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in 2022 that the share of Russian energy traded globally could fall from 20% in 2021 to 13% by 2030. For several reasons, such as maintenance of pipelines, the destruction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea and Western sanctions, Russia halted its energy supplies to many countries in the West.

The IEA suggested that renewable energy capacity, especially photovoltaic (PV) solar installed capacity, could surpass that of coal by 2027. In June, it said that solar PV capacity accounts for two-thirds of this year’s projected rise in global renewable capacity. Additionally, high electricity prices in Europe have caused the continent to shift its focus to renewables in the past year.

However, the use of fossil fuels to generate heat and power in remote or indigenous communities is still prominent. Due to not being connected to the main power grid, many communities generate electricity from diesel generators. The cost, inefficiency and pollution of these generators then falls on the communities as well as the wider environment. Grid-scale solutions do not solve problems in these communities, so here the energy transition must take a different approach..

Policies protecting indigenous rights

The transition towards renewable energy in remote communities requires better legislation and policies. While fossil fuels provide the necessities, it comes with a higher cost of social, health, environmental and economic well-being.

Media and events company GreenBiz pointed out in a report in 2021 that some residents in the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i pay a higher price for electricity than most other states in the US. As of 2021, the electricity rate in Hawaii was $0.1226 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Whereas Florida paid $0.1137/kWh, Georgia paid $0.1226/kWh, California paid $0.199/kWh, and New Jersey paid $0.1564/kWh.

“We prioritise indigenous-owned or led projects, or projects with community partnerships”

Government of Canada, “Clean Energy Initiatives in Indigenous, rural and remote communities”

According to the 2021 census, indigenous population in Canada accounts for almost 5% of the national population. To protect indigenous wellbeing, in May Canada introduced a clean energy initiative to make transition funding accessible to indigenous, rural and remote communities. These fund renewable energy, capacity-building projects, and energy efficiency measures. “We prioritise indigenous-owned or led projects, or projects with community partnerships, providing support for all project stages and a variety of technology types,” the government report reads.

Technology for remote decarbonisation

Alongside this, the Canadian government’s Natural Resources Department developed an indigenous Off-Diesel Initiative to support remote indigenous communities in developing plans to reduce diesel use for heat and power generation. Launched in 2019, this project is now bearing fruit. Collaborating with the Indigenous Clean Energy Social Enterprise and a non-profit think-tank, Pembina Institute provided around $21 million for clean energy planning, engagement, and implementation projects.

The Institute for Human Rights and Business published a report in February that mentioned energy structures like those in Scotland, where Aberdeen and the Highlands host a collection of locally-owned energy wind projects. The Scottish Government operates a Community and Renewable Energy Scheme (CARES) that offers funding to local energy projects.

The government describes it: “For over a decade, the Scottish Government’s flagship CARES has provided support to hundreds of local community groups and other eligible organisations to develop, own and/or take a stake in local renewable energy projects across Scotland.”.

Before then, the IEA’s Indigenous Energy Programme provided $40m to support around 50 remote indigenous communities by installing renewable energy systems for “accessible and reliable power supply”. While the program is now closed, the initiative educated people on energy conservation and maintenance of renewable energy systems.

Research published in February 2023 posited that salt could play an important role in energy transition. The study talked about the potential of large underground salt deposits that could act as hydrogen holding tanks, conduct heat to geothermal plants, and influence carbon dioxide storage.

“We see potential in applying knowledge and data gained from many decades of research, hydrocarbon exploration, and mining in salt basins to energy transition technologies,” the lead author of the research, Oliver Duffy said. 

Power generation through saltwater

Research suggests that saltwater can generate electricity through a process called osmosis. A study published in the scientific journal Nature argued that small amounts of electricity could be generated naturally when fresh water comes into contact with saltwater through a membrane. At scale, this could become a new type of water-based power generation.

In 2009, Norway opened the world’s first osmotic power plant

In 2009, Norway opened the world’s first osmotic power plant. The plant, constructed by government-owned energy developer Statkraft, produces waste-free electricity on a prototype scale by mixing fresh water and seawater through a membrane.

The company has conducted research on osmotic power since 1997. The prototype membrane covers 2000 square metres, with an efficiency of 1–2 watts per square meter. While this efficiency seems low, the plant can generate electricity regardless of the weather conditions and produces no harmful emissions.

Another piece of research brings these ideas together. A 2021 book by independent researcher Nasir El Bassam states: “If researchers can scale up the postage stamp–size membrane in an affordable fashion, it would provide carbon-free power to millions of people in coastal nations where freshwater rivers meet the sea.”

Using fossil fuels to generate heat and power within remote areas is expensive and has a deeper environmental impact. Initiatives such as conservation measures directly focusing on developing energy efficiency in indigenous communities would be a big step towards preservation. For off-grid communities, energy security and economic development must go hand-in-hand. Clean energy investments and initiatives must consider these factors as equals to decarbonisation to implement effective change outside of normal parameters.