Expanding access to modern energy sources is one of the development greatest challenges of our time. Nearly 1.3 billion people worldwide still lack access to electricity – 600 million in Africa alone – and 2.6 billion – almost 700 million of them in Africa – lack access to modern cooking facilities.
While many countries have focused their energy-access policies on increasing power generation capacity and expanding the grid, several low-carbon, off-grid solutions have also been gaining traction across Africa, such as solar photovoltaic panels, solar water heaters and improved cookstoves.
As part of the New Climate Economy, which is exploring how actions that reduce climate risks could also help build a stronger, more productive economy, SEI and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) are looking at the role of low-carbon technologies in expanding energy access.
Aiming to learn directly from policy-makers and practitioners, SEI and IIASA hosted a workshop in Nairobi, Kenya, on 10-11 April, bringing together about 40 people from academia, government, NGOs, donor organizations, and the private sector. The discussion focused on three key questions:
1) To what extent are low-carbon options being used to expand energy access and electrification?
2) Why are these low-carbon options being implemented? What are the incentives and barriers to their implementation?
3) What trade-offs between energy access, climate mitigation and other political goals are implementers faced with, and how are they tackling them?
“A key question for us was, are low-carbon technologies making a real difference for energy access in Africa?” says SEI Research Fellow Fiona Lambe, who led the workshop with SEI Research Fellows Marie Jürisoo and Oliver Johnson and Shonali Pachauri, of IIASA. “There are many barriers to bringing modern energy to poor households, especially in rural areas: high costs, lack of finance, limited implementing capacity, low demand and ability to pay of consumers. We think low-carbon, off-grid solutions can help, but have they?”
The answer, in short, is yes – but in most of Africa, they are not yet game-changers.
“It definitely depends on whom you ask, and the story varies immensely by country and context,” says Jürisoo. “The biggest success story we discussed at the workshop was Morocco, where the government since 1996 has pushed out solar PV panels as the main solution to off-grid electrification. Climate change was by no means the main concern – this was the most cost-effective solution. So that is an example of where the low-carbon way has really taken hold.”
Private-sector participants also spoke about how off-grid renewables had successfully filled key niches, such as solar-powered mobile phone chargers. “It’s the best and cheapest solution to that particular problem, so it has taken hold, not because it’s low-carbon but because it meets people’s needs,” says Jürisoo. “However, we also heard about several countries, such as Kenya, where renewable technology implementers have been unable to win the support of key government agencies.”
Need for more evidence
A key challenge cited at the workshop was the need for stronger evidence of the benefits of low-carbon technologies beyond climate change mitigation – such as improved air quality, energy security and job creation. “If evidence between low-carbon and job creation could be found, it would be very convincing proof for policy-makers,” one participant said. “To make a compelling case for politicians, we need a better understanding of how, where and why jobs increase from renewables.” Several participants also noted that a regional approach could help: encouraging African countries to learn from one another, compare their energy-access strategies, and even compete a bit on low-carbon technology uptake.
The workshop also examined key “enabling conditions” for scaling-up low-carbon solutions – from the crucial role of national policies and institutions, to how donors and NGOs can make a bigger impact.
“There was a quite lot of talk about the need to focus on the receiving end of technology transfer, for example,” says Johnson. “It doesn’t end with getting the technology introduced in a country – you need to provide a supportive environment and make sure that sustainable business models can be built around the new technologies. That means not just technical capacity-building, but perhaps also training about market development and marketing, how to sell a new product and build demand.”
A summary of the workshop has already been shared with participants and also fed into the New Climate Economy project report’s chapter on energy, which is being written by SEI Senior Project Manager Per Klevnäs. A policy brief is also under development.
Read the workshop summary (PDF, 268kb)