How do we close the energy gap, while making sure steps towards increased access to renewable energy supports sustainable and equitable recovery from the pandemic on the continent of Africa? A distinguished panel of experts from across the continent met on Tuesday in New York to ask this question, and look to the future.
Access to energy is an enabler of sustainable development. It is the ‘golden thread’ that links the Sustainable Development Goals and drives progress towards the Goals. Energy is also a cornerstone of efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change. Efforts to achieve universal energy access must foreground energy from renewable sources, and consider the full picture of production, affordability and use of electricity.
The meeting point of energy access and the transition to renewables has people at its heart. When access to energy is denied, the disparities in societies increase, posing a real threat to democracies. To get the transition right, the needs of different groups, especially women, must be considered.
Tuesday’s discussion interrogated this point of convergence. The event, organized in the margins of the UN High-Level Political Forum and hosted by the Permanent Mission of Nigeria to the United Nations with the support of the Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), addressed critical questions arising from the IEO’s recent evaluation of UNDP’s support to energy access.
Laying strong foundations
The transition to renewable energy is not simple, but with strong foundations that bolster institutions and human capacity, it is achievable.
The first foundation stone is regulatory frameworks that allow for sustainable energy solutions. Policies and regulations should facilitate access to energy for the most vulnerable populations, update infrastructure for energy efficiency, and consider the environment and climate change adaptation.
The second is the integration of renewable energy into power systems. Traditional grids are capital-intensive investments that need to be combined with decentralized systems for greater outreach. Innovative solutions that balance the two systems are needed, like the modular models used in Malawi or the feed-in tariff schemes adopted by several African countries.
The third is to overturn the perception of the African continent as energy poor. The gaps in access to energy themselves contain opportunities, as well as efforts to close them. The door is open for innovation in energy sources – the continent is rich in solar, wind, biopower and geothermal power - and innovation in terms of financing.
One major aspect holding back the widespread use of renewable energy in Africa is the cost of the technology, and market availability. From the perspective of UN programming, a shift from short term project-based finance to long term portfolio approaches is absolutely necessary for sustainability, which, coupled with new public and private investment opportunities, could prove effective. To make a difference to people’s lives, renewable energies must be affordable and accessible at the household level, for small businesses, and for essential services like health and education. New investments can modernize existing infrastructure for energy supply and support the creation of new infrastructure for efficient energy use, such as buildings and transport. New ways of financing, including results-based financing, national currency loans and the issuance of green or blue bonds are a few of the options currently available. International financial institutions can also play a role in de-risking these investments with new approaches such as debt restructuring, debt swaps, first loss schemes and guarantees.
The fourth foundation stone is strong human capacity. Increasing the number of women in senior positions in business and politics would be of great benefit to the continent as a whole. To make this happen, first and foremost the international community needs to push harder for gender equality at the decision-making level. Capacity development programmes also have a role to play, to encourage the participation of young women in the energy sector. Jobs created for young people, in particular young women, have cross-sectoral benefits, which we see clearly in the ECOWAS programme on women in energy.
The fifth stone is stronger institutions and better partnerships. Partnerships with the academic community, for example, promote research and development and strengthen the links between industry and energy for the benefit of all. New technologies can also play a role, in supporting the production and manufacturing of goods and services on the African continent using renewable resources.
The sixth and final foundation stone is an analysis of the political economy, to assess exactly who benefits from access and transition to renewable energy in Africa and who loses. When this perspective is considered, opportunities arise to address the complex convergence of climate change, deprivation and conflict that affects swathes of the continent.
Access to renewable energy can play an important role within broader efforts to address Africa’s complex and varied economic, social and political challenges. Building on these strong foundations, widespread access to renewable energy can contribute to peace building in the region, and help pave the way for a more inclusive, sustainable and brighter future for all.