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Scientists Present Alternative to Sarawak’s Mega-Dams

23 April 2014 – for immediate release

Scientists present alternative to Sarawak’s mega-dams

A new study by the University of Berkeley shows how Sarawak’s future lies with small-scale, local energy solutions rather than with risky and expensive large-scale hydropower. The scientists are presenting their findings tomorrow at the ASEAN Renewable Energy Week in Kuala Lumpur.

(BERKELEY, US) Scientists at Berkeley University have come up with an alternative to Sarawak’s power gigantism with its Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) project. Instead of building mega-dams, the government ought to focus on small-scale energy sources for increasing rural electrification and developing rural areas.

Extending rural energy access is key to poverty reduction in Sarawak. According to the new study entitled “Kampung Capacity”, small-scale energy solutions are more likely to translate into electricity access for the affected and nearby communities than large hydropower projects. The Bakun Dam shows that mega-dams mainly bring power to urban areas and feed large industries, while villages in the rural areas – even those next to the Bakun dam – remain without access to electricity.

The study analyses different energy scenarios based on small-scale energy solutions for three villages in the Baram area and finds "the least-cost options for energy services to come from a mixture of locally managed small-scale hydroelectricity, biogas generators and accompanying batteries instead of a claim of service provision based on large-scale regional electrification".

A whole range of tested “different renewable energy service scenarios are consistently 20 percent, or less, than the cost of diesel energy scenarios, without the social, economic, and environmental disruptions that would come with a large-scale hydropower plan for the river basin.“ Consequently, significant savings could result from using local and sustainable sources compared with today’s dependence on diesel generators in most rural villages.

The Berkeley report is the answer to the problems set out by researchers at Oxford University whose analysis of past dams has revealed that large dams are associated with enormous risks: on average, the actual costs of large dams have been 96 per cent higher than the estimate, and the implementation schedule has overshot by 44 percent. They concluded that large dams were uneconomical and advised countries at a lower level of economic development to implement smaller projects.

With their study, scientists Shirley and Kammen of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of Berkeley have now specified a possible design for such an energy strategy based on small-scale local energy solutions for Sarawak. The result is a viable alternative to “SCORE’s large scale, extraction-based development regime”. The two scientists have prepared the way for new paths of development in Sarawak. The researcher and author of the study, Rebekah Shirley, is presenting her findings tomorrow at the ASEAN Renewable Energy Week in Kuala Lumpur.

The Bruno Manser Fund asks the government of Sarawak to develop an alternative energy and development plan for Sarawak based on the findings of both the Berkeley and the Oxford studies. The time is ripe to acknowledge the advantages of small-scale energy solutions over large-scale dams. Development should be focused around the people and not indebt the state for generations to come.

Sources for this release:

Shirley, R. and Kammen, D., 2013, “Kampung Capacity: Local Solutions for Sustainable Rural Energy in the Baram River Basin, Sarawak, Malaysia”, University of California, Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (REAL).

Ansar, A. et al., 2014, “Should we build more large dams? The actual costs of hydropower megaproject development”, in: Energy Policy, University of Oxford.


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