5 ways of rethinking energy: What it will take to provide clean and affordable energy for everyone on the planet

Energy transforms lives and economies, but also impacts the environment. Minoru Takada from the UN and Rana Adib from REN21 discuss how we can provide energy for more than 7 billion people – and save the planet.

 

By Blas Ulibarri

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As part of the push to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7) – “affordable and clean energy for all” – the United Nations have defined five key areas where we need to think outside the box: electricity access, renewables, efficiency, investing and technology. Energy Stories spoke with Minoru Takada, Team Leader of Sustainable Energy at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and Rana Adib, the Executive Secretary from REN21, on where we stand today in these areas and how we need to rethink them if we’re going to achieve an equitable and sustainable energy system for everyone.

#1 Electricity Access: You can’t rely ongovernment and public sector resources alone.

According to the latest Tracking SDG7: The Energy Progress Report, electricity access has risen, with 89 percent of people around the world connected to some form of electricity. But 840 million people still don’t have access, and 573 million of them live in sub-Saharan Africa. Why are we still not able to provide access to energy to everyone? And how do we need to rethink our approach?

Minoru Takada: In some less developed countries, it’s quite challenging to actually provide electricity at a price that’s affordable for everybody. Some of the populations are poor, and their country’s economic status is such that they can’t completely subsidize access to electricity for everybody.

 

Also there are certain conditions that aren’t being met right now – think of them as political-institutional conditions. 1.3 trillion US dollars are needed every year to meet the entire SDG7 targets, which isn’t just access to electricity but also targets for renewable energy. The majority of that money will have to come from the private sector. You can’t rely on government and public sector resources. If you don’t have the right long-term policies or the right game rules that enable businesses to operate, then you won’t have any capital flowing into that market. Without those enabling conditions, it’s going to be difficult to attract the resources needed to expand electricity access.

Rana Adib: An increasing share of the worldwide unelectrified population do benefit from a basic level of energy access, as an estimated 5 percent of the population in Africa and 2 percent of the population in Asia – nearly 150 million people across these two regions – are using small off-grid systems (solar lanterns or solar home systems). Market expansion has been driven by loans offered by the companies distributing these systems, increasing their affordability. An unregulated market has also supported this uptake.

 

When it comes to supplying larger power needs for communities or commercial and industrial customers, companies operating distributed renewable systems such as microgrids are still struggling to attract investor interest due to the perceived risk of the local ecosystems in which they operate. The right institutional and regulatory framework is decisive for accelerating the development of minigrids.

 #2 Renewables: Want a green revolution? Don’tbe afraid to invest in new technology.

This year, around the world students have been protesting climate change, demanding more than ever clean energy solutions. Viable business models exist, the technology is there, but modern renewables still don’t seem to be growing fast enough. What’s delaying the renewable revolution? 

Takada: The global renewable energy revolution is happening, but it’s not happening fast enough, right? A part of the reason is that certain technological options have matured and are commercially available. These become the most favored options from the market’s point of view. So in the past there’s been a lot of investment in solar home systems or solar and wind energy, but other options aren’t there yet. Good battery storage is still under development. Heating and cooling systems still rely on traditional technologies. There’s great potential in renewable energy, but we need to invest in new technology and new options to realize it.

Adib: Renewables now account for over 26 percent of global electricity generation; 2018 made it clear that renewable energy is mainstream. Still, the deployment is not accelerating sufficiently in order to reach SDG7.

 

The transition is currently relegated to the power sector while, as Minoru says, renewables are barely increasing in the heating, cooling and transport sectors. One main cause is a lack of political support in these sectors. While 135 countries have policies for renewable power, only 20 countries have policies for renewable heating and cooling with 70 countries having policies for transport. Another key aspect is persistent support for fossil fuels. If renewable energy is ever going to expand in these end-use sectors, an immediate end to fossil fuel subsidies is crucial.

About

Minoru Takada leads DESA’s efforts in implementing SDG7 in support of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Previously, Takada was the Team Leader for Sustainable Energy for All at the Executive Office of the Secretary-General at UN and Head of the Sustainable Energy Programme at UNDP. For several years he worked as a community organizer in Africa. He holds a PhD in renewable energy applications from the University of Mie in Japan, and a Master’s Degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Hokkaido, Japan.

Rana Adib is the Executive Secretary at REN21, the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, based in Paris, which annually produces the highly referenced Renewables Global Status Report. Before joining REN21 in 2009, Rana worked for more than ten years in private industry and applied research in the areas of renewable energy, energy access, and waste management. She holds a Master’s Degree in industrial engineering from the University of Wedel in Germany.

 

" If you don’t have the right long-term policies or the right game rules that enable businesses to operate, then you won’t have any capital flowing into the market. "
Minoru Takada, Team Leader of Sustainable Energy, United Nations

#3 Energy Efficiency: Efficiency is a habit that strengthens with policy.

Energy efficiency remains one of the cheapest ways to decarbonize the world economy. Yet while efficiency has steadily increased over the years in major economies like China and India, the drop in the global primary energy intensity lags behind what’s needed to achieve the target. Some estimates suggest there’s even been a slowdown in efficiency for the past two years. What would cause a slowdown? Where and how can we make major gains again to reach the SDG target?

Takada: Energy efficiency is one of the most important drivers to address climate change. But efficiency options aren’t always the easiest to implement. Why? Energy efficiency improvement requires behavioral changes. We have to adapt to new technologies and to new ways of using them. Just look at changing lightbulbs. Easy, right? But as you change from a traditional bulb to a more efficient one, you also have to change your expectations and habits and adapt to something new. The principle is the same with almost all kinds of energy efficiency measures: simple in theory, harder in practice.

Adib: The energy efficiency sector also suffers from a lack of policies to mandate change. We hear a lot about retrofitted buildings and net-zero energy buildings, but, overall, only 34 percent of global energy is covered by energy efficiency policies and mandates. As Minoru says, efficiency habits will not change by themselves, so it is important to put effective policies, obligations and incentives in place. It is also important to better communicate what efficiency measures will bring: e.g. cool housing, economic opportunities because of refrigeration, local jobs, etc.

#4 Investing: The art of attracting investors? Even the playing field for clean energy.

Sustainable Energy for All calls finance the “lynchpin” to achieving SDG7 targets. Research, however, shows that actual spending is currently less than half that. What commercial approaches do we need to take to help us increase spending and close the energy access gaps? What role must industry and investors play, and how can we encourage governments, banks and investors to invest in places where it’s not cost-effective for commercial enterprises to operate?

Takada: To meet the SDG7 targets around the world, an estimated 1.3 trillion dollars need to be invested each year. Currently, around 500 to 600 billion dollars – less than 50 percent – is being invested. To fill that gap we have to create new conditions to attract and enable business investments. Why? Because the majority of that 1 trillion dollars will have to come from the private sector. Conditions that trust policy regulations, institutional capacities, rules of the game, monitoring systems data, all those things are needed for the private sector to be able to assess the opportunities, invest and recover their return. All that’s lacking in many developing countries.

Adib: In parallel to stable policies that support the growth of renewables and energy efficiency, we also need to create a level playing field. This will be possible by removing fossil fuel subsidies that have increased by 30 percent in 2018 compared to the year before, reaching 400 billion US dollars. We need to enact effective carbon pricing policies, or by divesting further from fossil fuels and joining the more than a thousand organizations representing a total of 8 trillion US dollars of managed assets.

" In parallel to stable policies supporting the growth of renewables and energy efficiency, we also need to create a level playing field. "
Rana Adib, Executive Secretary, REN21

About SDG7

The UN’ Sustainable Development Goal 7 is one of 17 goals that call for all countries to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. SDG7 – “affordable and clean energy for all” – is considered by many a cornerstone goal due to the close relationship between access to electricity and economic development. More than 800 million people still have no access to electricity and around 4 million premature deaths occur each year from a lack of access to clean cooking fuels.

#5 Technology: With tech to store your renewables you might just have it all.

Along with investment, innovative technology seems to be at the heart of providing clean, efficient energy for all as urbanization and a growing population see our demand for energy continuing to rise. Which technologies stand to disrupt traditional ways of thinking about centralized power generation and energy access?

Takada: We’re witnessing a global energy transformation from a centralized, large-scale energy system to a network of distributed systems, which requires us to make a lot of changes in how we govern those systems. But which technologies are going to dominate in the future? I only wish I knew! Right now, renewable energy investments are growing and new technologies are being developed. And with massive investments and research in storage, we’re going to see even more intermittent renewable energy technologies managed with small systems including storage. Are we going to see a different type of technology in the future? Definitely yes, it’s a potential possibility, but let’s wait and see which one is going to emerge over the next five to ten years. 

Adib: Actually, I’d suggest that we already have most of the technologies that we need. Variable renewables such as solar PV or wind power have proven that they can provide high shares in the electricity mix. For instance, in 2018, at least nine countries had more than 20 percent of their electricity coming from solar PV or wind power. Expanding transmission infrastructure and improving distribution, grid infrastructure, monitoring through digitalization as well as interconnections will help to better manage supply and demand. The key will indeed be the new market rules we set, the development of new business models and a new form of utilities.

Jan XX, 2020

Blas Ulibarri is an independent journalist in Zurich, Switzerland.

 

Combined picture credits: Siemens AG

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