Here’s what we need to accelerate progress on global energy goals
This article first appeared on Ensia.
I’m an optimist by nature, so when I see a new sustainable energy report I immediately look for the good news. And there’s plenty of that in the 2017 Global Tracking Framework report released last week by the World Bank and International Energy Agency in collaboration with 20 other agencies. The report showcases encouraging trends in providing the world’s neediest populations with access to reliable electricity and clean energy.
According to the report, 90 percent of Afghanistan’s war-torn population had electricity in 2014 — much of it solar — up from 50 percent just four years earlier. Fifty-six million more Indonesians were cooking with clean fuel instead of high-polluting kerosene. And decentralized, off-grid renewable energy, driven by plummeting prices for solar, is turning on the lights for tens of millions in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
These numbers may sound impressive, but when you consider that more than a billion people still live in the dark without electricity — an appalling one of every seven people on the planet — it’s clear we have a very long way to go. No matter how you cut it, the world faces a big challenge in meeting key U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): providing universal access to modern energy services; doubling energy efficiency improvements; and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix, all by 2030. At the rate we’re going, it’s unlikely we’ll hit these goals by 2040. "Business as usual isn’t enough. We need speed and scale," said Sustainable Energy for All CEO Rachel Kyte.
So what will it take to bring these people, the vast majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia Pacific countries, into the modern energy economy more quickly? Some answers were floated last week at a three-day sustainable energy forum featuring a rich mix of on-the-ground entrepreneurs, funders, bankers and global clean energy luminaries.
One of the biggest opportunities is dramatically cheaper renewable energy — especially wind and solar, whose costs have dropped as much as 80 percent in just the past five years. In some places, such as Chile, India and Dubai, solar projects have earned the green distinction of being cheaper than coal. "They’re not just competitive. They’re producing the cheapest power at any time in history," Bloomberg New Energy Finance founder and advisory board chairman Michael Liebreich told forum attendees.
Christiana Figueres, the former U.N. executive who helped broker the historic global Paris Climate Agreement, said plummeting prices for renewables should be the final nail in the coffin for using coal, whether for home cooking stoves or power plants. "It’s a total fallacy for those who say coal is the answer to [solve] poverty," said Figueres.
But several experts said there is a continued troubling bias by many government decision-makers towards fossil fuels. Which leads to another key solution for accelerating deployment of sustainable energy: policy. Indonesia’s success in converting millions of households and small businesses to clean cooking, for example, is due to a massive government program launched in 2007 that distributed 57 million free propane stove starter kits to reduce demand for high-polluting kerosene. China and Mexico’s world-leading progress on energy efficiency and renewable energy also are the result of supportive government policies. In Kenya, Tanzania and Bangladesh, national policies supporting household solar power, including low import duties and tariffs on off-grid products, improved local financing opportunities and setting clear clean energy goals and timetables, have kick-started a boom that is enabling millions of families to read and work at night while also recharging their cellphones and radios. Solar providers such as Off Grid Electric, M-Kopa Solar and Mobisol are all thriving in these countries, especially in remote rural areas where electric grids do not exist.
Mobile phones and mobile money also advance sustainable energy. In East Africa, the mobile money feature enables customers to finance their off-grid solar systems with an up-front deposit and daily payments — all done on their cellphones. "Mobile money is a key element of our business model," said Mobisol head of business development Thomas Duveau, whose company has installed 75,000 solar systems in Tanzania and other East African countries.
Yet, for all of their early promise, renewable solutions are still in their infancy, especially in emerging markets. Companies such as Mobisol and M-Kopa Solar are reaching hundreds of thousands of African customers, but their market share is still tiny. If these companies had better access to capital, they could grow and help achieve the SDG goals more quickly.
Indeed, access to financing was undoubtedly the biggest topic of the forum. Dozens of panels focused on finding the secret sauce — "blended pools," "patient capital," "risk hedging" in energy-financing speak — that will attract more private capital, especially from global institutional investors and commercial banks whose money is largely sitting on the sidelines in places such as Africa.
There are many signs of progress. Green bond issuances, which eclipsed $80 billion last year and could approach $150 billion this year, are being used to finance energy efficiency improvements in Mexico and China, wind projects in Croatia, and geothermal projects in Indonesia. Fortune 500 companies such as Apple and Google are investing billions to run their U.S. operations and overseas facilities on 100 percent renewable energy. More nascent efforts, such as the Currency Exchange Fund, are beginning to offer financing services that help clients such as M-Kopa Solar avoid local currency risks. But perhaps the most encouraging sign came from the goliath African lender Standard Bank. "The time has come, as Africa’s largest bank, to focus on this [renewable energy] sector in Africa," said Maureen Harrington, who heads up power and infrastructure lending at the South Africa–based bank. "We believe the sector is ripe now for commercial banks." Music to everyone’s ears, for sure.
As several speakers noted, success breeds success. As more financing becomes available, as more companies succeed, as more governments bring affordable sustainable energy to their constituencies, more investors, especially large institutional investors, will have no choice but to join a sustainable energy future that touches everyone.