By Kristina Skierka, Campaign Director, Power for All
Power is fundamental to human and economic development: the greater a country’s electricity consumption, the greater the well-being of its people. Today, more than 1 billion people are without access to the health, opportunity and freedom that come with access to energy. Yet on the eve of the most anticipated climate negotiations in history, many of the world’s best scholars and largest development finance institutions (including the World Bank) tell us that climate change—caused largely by how we generate and use energy—is a leading cause of poverty, with consequences likely to be borne disproportionately by emerging markets. We are asked, it seems, to choose between two evils: slowing development or harming our environment.
With the UNFCCC’s Conference of the Parties in Paris (COP 21) just a few months away, must we really choose between development or 2°C? No. The win-win-win of addressing climate and development by committing to deliver clean universal energy access can be one of the most significant outcomes of the path to Paris in 2015—and beyond. By advancing a climate consensus in support of distributed renewable energy as the primary means of helping the energy impoverished (the vast majority of whom live in rural areas), we can create a new paradigm where climate and development are no longer at odds. Given that non-OECD countries will account for 70 percent of population growth and 90 percent of growth in energy demand in the next 15 years, the implications of reframing the climate/energy/development nexus now have vast implications for the long-term health of our planet.
Universal Energy Access: The Key to Development
Access to energy is strongly correlated with human development index (HDI) scores—a measure of well-being including life expectancy, literacy, education and living standards. A little electricity goes a long way; when annual energy consumption rises from zero to just a few thousand kilowatt-hours (kWh) per capita, countries see a jump in correlated HDI scores. Electricity doesn’t cause well-being, but empowers people to join in the kind of activities that drive development, such as studying and working before sunrise or after sunset, using cell phones, and accessing the Internet. Electrification has been shown to increase incomes by 38 percent per year in developing countries, and current data suggests access for the energy impoverished could create 1.5 trillion additional productive hours, save nearly $40 billion in energy expenditures, and enable nearly 300 million school-age children to study longer under better conditions.
Distributed Renewable Energy: The Key to Energy Access
Energy can transform the trajectory of individuals, families, and entire nations. However, meeting the demand for universal access could create a climate catastrophe if traditional energy delivery is pursued; the nearly 1,000 TWh needed to provide access is the equivalent of building 150-170 new coal-fired power plants. But with 85 percent of the energy impoverished living in rural areas, business-as-usual approaches—including centralized power production, grid distribution, and long-distance transmission —are simply not cost-effective solutions for energy poverty.
Despite assertions by groups like The Climate Depot and Advanced Energy For Life that spurning fossil fuels in the developing world is anti-poor and immortal, the truth is that decentralized renewable energy (DRE) is the fastest, most cost-effective and climate-resilient approach to delivering universal energy access. Today, a wide range of distributed generation and decentralized renewable energy solutions—including pico solar, pay-as-you-go solar home systems, mini-grids and mobile solar farms—are immediately deployable and widely affordable. What’s more, the leading off-grid companies are pacing—even outpacing—the world’s traditional electrical utilities based on number of customers served. In fact, evidence shows that DRE solutions can end poverty in 10 years, for a fraction of the cost of time that experts currently predict, while reducing (or avoiding) a host of health issues related to GHGs and black carbon.
The Call To Action: Power for All
As every one of the nearly 200 countries involved in the COP is feeling pressure to enact ambitious policies to cut use of fossil fuels, the global community is looking for fast, effective action that will drive consensus and inspire collaboration. This is a unique moment in time. Elevating the role of distributed renewable energy as the core strategy for energy poverty can create a new paradigm where climate and development are no longer at odds. Enter Power for All: a global advocacy campaign to advance renewable, decentralized solutions as the fastest, most cost-effective and sustainable approach to universal energy access, launched last month at the United Nations. While Power for all is building a unified voice for the DRE sector, the broader sustainability community has a role to play in helping to challenging “business as usual” approaches that put climate and development and odds, and proactively position renewable, decentralized energy as the critical enabler to delivering energy access faster, cheaper – and better.
With 2015 a pivotal year, there is an urgent opportunity for sustainability leaders in public and private sectors to embrace the DRE sector and change the narrative, advance appropriate solutions, and create a new paradigm for the future of energy. In particular:
Support the Campaign. All sectors of society have a role to play in creating this historic market transformation that will leapfrog old ways of delivering energy. Sign up to contribute financially or in-kind: http://www.powerforall.org/take-action/.
Amplify the Message. As your organization creates a strategy around engagement at the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Paris—either on-site or remotely—carry the Power for All message.
Create Power for All. All investments that expand the global application of renewable, distributed, and democratized energy sources—ranging from zero-net energy buildings to affordable solar lanterns—grow legitimacy for the kinds of solutions that will deliver universal energy access to the energy impoverished, and a more democratic future of energy.
With billions of dollars, tons of emissions and the well-being of more than 2 billion people without access to safe, affordable and reliable power in the balance, 2015 creates both urgency and opportunity for the broader sustainability community. After all, the same clean energy that will drive development in remote areas of the world, that will reduce global warming and supply our growing populations—without environmental degradation—well past 2050.
Co-author of Power for All: The Energy Access Imperative (2014), Kristina has helped create a movement for using clean technology to deliver universal energy access to the 1.1 billion under-electrified by 2025. Kristina has led a number well-known public awareness campaigns, first as Director of Cleantech for a U.K.–based communications firm and then as founder of Katalytix (2009), a boutique specialty advisory dedicated to advancing products, practices and policies that support a clean energy future. Kristina has helped launched a number of environmental leadership initiatives and stakeholder engagement efforts for private companies (Applied Materials’ “Bright Futures”, Sun Microsystems’ “Eco Responsibility,” d.light’s “Future of Energy”) and public organizations (California’s Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan, Flex Your Power). Kristina was named an Energy Foundation Senior Fellow in 2009.