Foreign Policy Blogs

A More Inclusive Global Energy Paradigm

Photo: World Bank

As part of the European Union’s support for the U.N.’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, E.U. Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs announced with visiting Djibouti Prime Minister Dileita Mohamed Dileita that the E.U. would provide funding for a combined renewable energy and water desalinization plant. The plant, to be built near Djibouti City, is to provide water for more 200,000 people—about one quarter of the of the country’s population. It will cost $69 million with the E.U. providing $53.6 million and the Djiboutian government to cover the balance. Water demand in the capital is estimated at 80,000 cubic meters daily (cmd), but only 36,000 cmd are supplied; to further complicate the situation, the country recently suffered through a lengthy drought.

 

In Mr. Piebalg’s statement, he stated that the plant will be powered by renewable energy in the future. This commitment is in line with Djibouti’s goal of moving towards 100 percent renewable energy by 2020, detailed at World Energy Forum 2012 in Dubai, and to demonstrate steps for sustainable development.

 

However, throughout much of Djibouti, citizens suffer from insufficient energy services—which is not unique to the nation.

 

Energy poverty is generally defined as when people do not have access to modern energy sources. Being reliant on rudimentary sources of energy keeps large swaths of people locked out of the global economy and inextricably linked to poverty. Today, at least 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity globally, according to UNDP. Of those, 85 percent live in rural areas with the bulk concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). More starkly, 2.7 billion people do not have access to cooking and heating fuel and instead rely on traditional, inefficient biomass such as wood, crop waste, animal waste and charcoal for necessary fuel, heat, and light. Kerosene is also used for light, but it is relatively costly and inefficient. Gathering the fuel daily, mostly by women and children, consumes time that could be otherwise utilized productively, stifling their education and career opportunities.

 

The biomass is usually burned in inefficient stoves inside primitive and poorly ventilated dwellings. The smoke produces high levels of household air pollution (HAP) with a range of health-damaging pollutants, including small soot particles that penetrate the lungs and causes chronic illness and other health impacts. According to the “Global Burden of Disease Study” published this past December in the Lancet, HAP from cooking with solid fuels kills 4 million people annually. In addition, millions more are sickened from lung cancer and disease, child lower respiratory infections, cardiovascular disease, and cataracts associated with HAP. Furthermore, these emissions are important drivers of climate change and local environmental degradation.

 

Shifting from solid fuels to cleaner energy technologies can potentially yield the largest reduction in indoor air pollution levels, while minimizing environmental impacts of energy production and consumption in general.

 

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is a new initiative, led by the U.N. Foundation, supporting large-scale adoption of clean, efficient and safe household cooking solutions as a way to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and reduce climate change emissions. The Alliance’s founding partners have set a goal of enabling an additional 100 million homes to adopt technologies such as solar cookers by 2020.

 

To meet this goal, increased energy services are necessary.

 

There can be no human development without energy. Energy is a key ingredient which allows society to function. It provides the ability to access economic opportunities to create jobs and increase income, it empowers women, children and local communities, it improves the ability to deliver quality education and health services, provides power to refrigerate medicine, power hospitals, and light to study at night, among a myriad of other vital uses.

 

It becomes evident for those in energy poverty, they are in a poverty trap. Access to energy is a prerequisite for poverty alleviation.

 

Highlighting the issue, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, recognizing that “access to modern affordable energy services in developing countries is essential for the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals, and sustainable development, which would help to reduce poverty and to improve the conditions and standard of living for the majority of the world’s population.” It has drawn greater public awareness and influential commitments for providing access to energy.

           

Sustainable Energy For All is a U.N. led initiative that brings together governments, businesses and civil society groups to achieve three goals by 2030: (1) ensuring universal access to modern energy services (2) doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency (3) doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. The goals encompass boosting economic growth, improving social equity and preserving the environment.

 

As Aneri Patel senior associate for energy access at the U.N. Foundation describes, “The United Nations Foundation operates the Energy Access Practitioner Network, a global network officially part of the UN Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative to catalyze practitioners across the globe on solving energy poverty. Currently represented in 150 countries, hundreds of practitioners share best practices and recommendations on meeting the 2030 goal of universal access.” She also mentioned successes to include elevating the status of entrepreneurs on an international stage, such as the EPA’s C3E Awards, IFC’s Lighting Africa Competition, the Ashden Awards, and Forbes 30 under 30 list.

 

Providing access to energy remains difficult on a macro level. Constructing a traditional central power plant and the accompanying infrastructure is costly and difficult due to poor conditions and challenging topography. On a micro level, in a twist of irony, many nations with rampant energy poverty are well situated to leverage their local advantages of solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and/or biomass to provide a reliable source of energy. Constructing decentralized renewable energy infrastructure is a key component to provide access to energy to these areas. The roadmap can be similar to that for mobile phones, which eliminated the need for land lines and other infrastructure.

 

This is not cheap and can not be implemented overnight. IEA Chief Economist Dr. Fatih Birol said, “We need $36 billion a year to bring modern energy services to the poor. There is a big gap between this figure, and what is currently being invested.” When placed in context, the $36 billion is 3 percent of funding to be spent on energy services. In 2009, $9.1 billion was invested in extending energy access.

 

In most countries, the public sector cannot meet the challenge alone, but it can employ national energy plans and targets, and provide basic financial support to replicate similar succeses. Programs are being implemented through financing from international banks, development banks, project developers, local banks, and microfinance institutions. Projects are spreading in certain locations, but it is often hard to make a business case for projects in nations with weak political systems and institutions, and profitability is unlikely, thus many businesses are now citing action more for corporate social responsibility. All nations afflicted with energy poverty need a national policy to lay the foundation to establish a financial environment attractive for investment—many think that it  is easier to attain financing for a large scale power plant than for a small energy project in rural Africa.

 

In sum, providing access to reliable, sustainable energy is an enormous challenge on many levels. But if the momentum that has continued to build during 2012 endures developing policy, planning, and financing from governments, the private sector, and civil society working together, the bridge to a fruitful life will be presented for hundreds of millions of people that are currently without energy options.