African development goals are powerless without clean, distributed energy

by Simba Sibanda and Chiedza Mazaiwana
Monday, 23 May 2016 10:34 GMT

A boy stands in front of wind turbines at the Ashegoda Wind Farm, near a village in Mekelle, Tigray, 780 km (485 miles) north of Addis Ababa October 25, 2013. REUTERS/Kumerra Gemechu

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It's not "energy for all" we need now. It's clean energy for all, fast

One of the World Bank’s hashtags on Twitter is #endenergypoverty. It is a critically important goal. It is also just one of 17 “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) that the international community, led by the United Nations, has committed to meet by 2030.

But not all goals are created equal.

There is a massive blind spot in the development goals vision. In order for many if not all of the SDGs to be achieved within 14 years, universal access to affordable, modern and reliable energy (SDG #7) is a prerequisite.

Energy is the “Intel Inside” of the SDGs. Unseen, but required to make the SDG framework deliver on its many intended benefits. No power means no water pumps to irrigate fields for food production (SDG #2); no refrigeration to store vaccines that ensure health (SDG #3); no lights for children to do homework at night and no power for Internet at schools to guarantee quality education (SDG #4).

It is no coincidence that over half of the world’s out-of-school children are in sub-Saharan Africa, which has 600 million of the 1.1 people worldwide who live without any access to any electricity.

As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has noted: energy access “is a game changer - for everything.”

Yet as the African Development Bank gathers this week in Lusaka for its annual meeting, development agencies and banks, and their national government “clients”, still pursue energy infrastructure the old-fashioned way: namely through centralised power plants, often using fossil fuels, that according to the World Bank’s own internal audit take an average of nine years to get up and running.

Nine years. We only have 14. Assuming power is needed to achieve the SDGs, using the business-as-usual approach to build Africa's future energy infrastructure leaves us no time to tackle them. This is totally unrealistic. Yet there is a lack of sufficient urgency in embracing different approaches. 

One such approach that is showing rapid, market-driven growth is distributed renewable energy, such as rooftop solar and mini-grids. Right now, no multilateral development bank spends more than 2 percent on these solutions, including the African Development Bank. 

Yet these solutions are far more cost-effective, clean and able to be deployed almost immediately, especially in remote areas, where most of the unelectrified live. In Zimbabwe for example, 86 percent of the rural population is unelectrified.

A new way of thinking is needed. And that requires leadership, by national governments and by their funders. The African Development Bank has announced ambitious plans for renewable energy in its "New Energy Deal" for Africa, including 75 million "off-grid" connections. That is an important start.

But the financing for decentralised renewables must be guaranteed, and the national policy and regulatory environments must be in place, with a focus on speed of deployment. 

Inertia is currently the power that dominates discussion around the future of energy infrastructure in Africa. For universal energy access to be achieved by 2030, the power that must be embraced instead is distributed renewable energy.

When the development banks make their hashtag #endenergypovertyfaster, we will be moving down the right path.

Simba Sibanda is secretary of the Renewable Energy Association of Zimbabwe. Chiedza Mazaiwana is Zimbabwe lead for the Power for All campaign.

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