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Developing nations have the potential to generate large amounts of energy from renewable sources, according to a US$10 million assessment coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

UNEP hopes to attract support to enable developing countries to transform the assessment's findings into effective energy policies.

The initial results of the Solar and Wind Energy Resource Assessment (SWERA), which looked at 13 developing countries, were announced last week (14 April).

They show how developing countries could harness thousands of megawatts of electricity from solar and wind energy.

"In developing countries all over the world we have removed some of the uncertainty about the size and intensity of the solar and wind resource," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of UNEP last week.

"These countries need greatly expanded energy services to help in the fight against poverty and to power sustainable development. SWERA offers them the technical and policy assistance to capture the potential that renewable energy can offer."

The SWERA project used satellites and ground-based instruments to assess the potential for wind and solar-powered renewable energy.

Its findings have generated a range of tools to promote the implementation of policies that promote use of renewable energy sources. These tools include maps of wind and solar resources.

The researchers created the 'geospatial toolkit' to overlay wind and solar maps with electricity distribution grids.

Already, the project has influenced policy in several countries, including Nicaragua and Guatemala.

In Nicaragua, the SWERA assessment showed that there was much more potential for wind energy production than was previously thought.

As a result, the Nicaraguan National Assembly passed a decree in 2004 giving wind energy priority over other forms of energy when feeding into the electricity grid.

In Guatemala, estimates that renewable energies could yield 7,000 megawatts of electricity prompted the Ministry of Energy to create the Centre for Renewable Energy and Investment. The centre will identify sites for wind energy development.

According to previous UNEP estimates, the African continent needs 40,000 megawatts of electricity to power its industrialisation. An initial SWERA assessment in Ghana suggests that the nation has the potential to generate more than 2,000 megawatts from wind energy.

It takes about 1,000 megawatts to power a US city the size of Seattle, whose population is 560,000.

Tom Hamlin, project manager for SWERA, said last week that the project will be seeking support to meet requests from renewable energy development programmes in other developing countries.

The 13 developing nations involved in SWERA are Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Cuba, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Sri Lanka.