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Decentralized renewable energy can unlock UN sustainability goal

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A United Nations goal to end energy poverty by 2030 can only be achieved by accelerating investment in decentralized renewable energy, according to campaign group Power for All, backed by analysis produced by the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at the University of California, Berkeley.

Decentralized Energy spoke to some of the leadership behind that report about the modus operandi behind the drive to end energy poverty sooner rather than later.
Kristina Skierka of Power For All
As a starting point, a 2016 report by Power for All concluded that ending energy poverty by 2030 -- the focus of UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 -- can only be achieved for the rural poor by accelerating investment in decentralized renewable energy (DRE) solutions such as microgrids and rooftop solar.

A follow up ground-breaking report released last month by the group, entitled “Decentralized Renewables: From Promise to Progress”, identifies what it sees as the five most important national energy policies needed to end electricity poverty for approximately 1 billion rural poor (mostly living in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia). The report also outlines the steps governments can take to implement those policies, in particular the integration of decentralized renewable solutions into energy infrastructure planning and build-out.

So is the difference between Power For All and other similarly motivated groups such as ONE that the former’s unique selling point is specifically aimed at decentralized renewable energy?

“That‘s a fair assessment and what’s also distinctive about Power For All is our focus on accelerating the path to universal access,” Kristina Skierka, Campaign Director for Power for All (above right) told Decentralized Energy. “We need to achieve what are the goals of (SDG) 7 by 2025 and because the vast majority of those that lack energy access are in rural areas, around 80-85 per cent, decentralized renewable energy is the natural choice for quick effective tier 1 access.”

Diesel generator- solar power hybrids are being touted by various firms as another means of delivering the grail of energy to deprived populations but Power for All isn’t interested in compromising with solutions involving fossil technologies.

Those solutions have their place but Skierka is keen to change the narrative.

CHANGING ESTABLISHED MINDSETS

“There are a number of conversations going on about barriers and obstacles but our real focus is on our theory of change. The theory of change is based on establishing political will.”

“Two things need to be done, one of which is the legitimisation of the decentralised renewable sector. I’ve been working on this sector for six or seven years now and when I first started out people were referring to solar kits as toys thereby basically demeaning the level of energy access they brought and how much better a solution they were for poor people than kerosene, charcoal and candles for example.”

“To really establish the legitimacy of the sector bringing forward data evidence that shows time and again that this is a legitimate form of energy. That also as to be coupled with a real challenge to business as usual and those established mind sets that excuse the slow pace of achieving universal access. That includes accepting the idea that we have to wait an entire generation to achieve universal access. We don’t think that’s right in this day and age, when we can run entire global businesses from a small device we hold in our hands.”

Skierka is under no illusions as to the received wisdom and conservative attitudes the group must overcome to place decentralized renewable energy on a higher platform.

“It comes from the old mindset that we are dedicated to challenging. The mindset that thinks for example the best way to deliver energy to people in remote areas is through grid extension, long lead transmission lines that waste a tonne of energy and are usually powered by fossil fuels. That is a big piece of it.”

“Another is the lack of real understanding of how the technology has developed and what’s possible now. We work to combat both of those things and a lot of the work to we do in countries is about galvanising the sector to present itself at the table with other energy companies. Along with that there is a lot of education to be done with the governments themselves as we lay out in our point of view paper. There is a lot of desire to try new options but it can seem overwhelming and it can be hard to get good credible information – we try to plug that gap.”

Microgrids and on-site solar power are chief among the technologies that fit the bill in meeting the universal access imperative. The group says as long as the technology meets the decentralized renewable criteria, they have a technology neutral approach with the market having a huge role to play in moving faster towards the access goal.

DATA-DRIVEN CHANGE

The University of California, Berkeley’s Dr Rebekah Shirley, Power for All Director of Research and co-author of the new report told Decentralized Energy about the work her research team is doing in data collection and analysis, a significant pillar in winning over doubters to the decentralized renewables cause.

The report centres on new quantitative and qualitative analysis from the Platform for Energy Access Knowledge (PEAK) -- a joint project between Professor Daniel Kammen’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL), University of California, Berkeley and the Power for All campaign. PEAK examined the policies of five high-growth decentralized renewable energy (DRE) markets -- India and Bangladesh in Asia, and Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia in Africa -- to identify trends in energy policy that will help other countries replicate success.

One of the problems the sector faces is the methods used by the likes of the International Energy Agency (IEA) don’t tend to take intoPower For All logo account the potential of DRE to be the solution when developing strategies aimed at energy development and efficiency.

“The big reports from the IEA tend to use these large scale  macroeconomic models for forecasting demand and generation and supply outcomes for 2020 and 2030 to 2050,” says Shirley. “The problem with those is it’s hard to incorporate decentralized renewable energy as it’s more difficult to parameterize in terms of their efficiency and generation capacity. Because of that it is a little bit harder to integrate into those models but it can be done.”

“What we do is speak to and work with the national development banks with regard to finance and we use the research arm in terms of changing the conversation about research and modelling as well. We have an opportunity to speak with the IEA about this and we try to get across there are ways to incorporate decentralized renewable energy into new modelling techniques and accounting.”

In order to meet that aim and to measure progress, the report also unveiled an Energy Access Target Tracker (EATT), which for the first time indexes the 48 energy-poorest countries and their national energy access targets, and determines which are best prepared to achieve universal electrification and which are not. Currently, almost two-thirds of the countries lack a rural energy access target. The 48 countries together account for 540 million rural unelectrified, more than half of the global total.

MOVING THE NEEDLE

The accumulation of data is a valuable tool in helping countries reach a tipping point, where DRE technologies are embraced as a natural choice.

Turning its call to action into tangible results, Power for All recently hosted multi-stakeholder meetings in Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, where governments, civil society and the private sector responded with clear commitments to accelerate energy access via DRE.

Winning the political will and engaging and mobilising the broader sector, including CFOs and organisers is, according to Skierka, going to continue to be the key battle if the war for universal access is to be won within the timescale objective.

“We’ve seen incredible success and we’ve seen outreach, whether in country or national level in terms of getting a much more fair amount of ground coverage for this sector.”

“There had been a lack of understanding and a lack of being able to see DRE as part of the broader energy solution. From that perspective, we have engaged with the media in, for example, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe and we have seen coverage for the sector increase anywhere from 11 times to 26 times just due to a concentrated media push.”

“That is huge because that really does help build political will across all the area of activity.”

Skierka also notes how concentrating on what she refers to as ‘moving the needle’, from an opinion perspective, in large global institutions can add to the momentum in a serious way.

“That can make a real difference with organisations such as the World Bank. A year ago, we launched an initiative to really challenge the business as usual mindset about how they are funding energy development within the World Bank. One of the permanent significant outcomes from this is the creation of an active energy working group within the bank and other stakeholders within the sector to create whole new way of economic modelling in a decision tree that creates a value for the missed opportunities of access along with what the cost is of people not having access beyond just the energy itself.”

“I think that the result of the calls to action speak for themselves. Government commitments about targets on setting up funds to support rural electrification agencies – these are how we measure success.”

“We don’t just focus on the big institutions that are slow to move. But when they do move they create significant shifts and a real difference in the course of history.”

“But we also want to work outside those large institutions and specifically in target countries where there is a real energy poverty problem and make a difference on the ground.”

Decentralized renewable energy was present in the IEA’s 2010 report but there was disappointment about the agency’s grasp of what the sector is capable of. Skierka says the modelling at that time wasn’t up to date on getting to grips with the potentials involved.

Power for All’s work is set to contribute to a greater understanding of the sector that should feed into future IEA modelling.

“We have a whole strategic framework to be announced in the near future but for now our underlying focus is on our critical distinction in the marketplace which is really helping create tipping point countries and converting them into countries that have the momentum and strength on their own to achieve universal energy access.”

“We have done the work to put the ecosystem in place to support the great work already being done on the ground by all kinds of partners. It’s often not knitted together and so for us to be able to turn that into real political will, that is evidence of commitment and progress towards change. That is our distinct contribution.”

 

Power for All is a coalition of civil society and business campaigning to rapidly scale the deployment of decentralized renewable energy (DRE) in order to achieve universal energy access by 2030. To learn more visit www.powerforall.org