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Bringing solar out of the shadows

by Sarah Best | International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
Wednesday, 15 February 2017 15:41 GMT

In this 2014 file photo, a youth displaced by the fighting charges batteries with solar panels at a makeshift shop in a camp for internally displaced persons at the United Nations base in Bentiu, Unity State, South Sudan. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Tanzania needs huge levels of finance to meet its energy requirements, but funding commitments fall far short

For Tanzania to meet its energy needs - and in a way that is sustainable - huge levels of finance are required to boost its decentralised energy sector. But the latest research shows that current funding flows are way off target.

Providing sustainable energy for everyone, in line with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, will need a massive shift to decentralised supply through such technology as solar home systems or clean cook stoves. Getting energy to remote areas using decentralised solutions is often quicker and cheaper than expanding the central grid.  

But to make this possible, public finance - money needed to grow nascent markets - needs to be able to reach this sector. Global climate finance continues to favour ‘big grid’ technologies, but it is also important to see what is happening within countries.

In a big country like Tanzania, where in 2012 just 20 percent of people had access to the grid, decentralised energy is crucial if the government is to achieve its target of 75 percent electrification by 2033.   

Our new research, Money is Power, found that investments in the grid far outstrip financing for decentralised technologies.

Just 2 percent of the $40 million that the government allocated to energy access between 2009/10 and 2016/17 went to decentralised energy projects. And only 11 percent of the $1.6 billion that development partners have committed to energy between 2008 and 2021 was earmarked for decentralised energy.

The sector’s biggest supporters are the EU, UK (DfID) and France (AfD), while countries such as Japan and Korea focus exclusively on the grid. 

It is a huge split. But what really matters is how commitments meet people’s needs on the ground. The World Bank and International Energy Agency (IEA) estimate that delivering energy access for all Tanzania’s citizens would cost between $65 million and $2.1 billion each year depending on the level of service provided.

Making it possible for everyone to be provided with a fairly basic level of power supply, enough to light the home and charge mobile phones, would cost $425 million each year. Under the World Bank/IEA model, decentralised systems such as a 100 watt solar panel, would meet these needs. 

But as we found, funding commitments fall far short. Taking average annual spending, development partners provide 6 percent of the $425 million, while the government’s contribution accounts for just 1 percent.

Generally, foreign-owned small and medium-sized businesses and NGOs get a bigger slice of the pie than domestic players, although some Tanzanian organisations, such as solar company Ensol and NGO TaTEDO, have attracted significant finance. The funding being so heavily skewed towards foreign players is disappointing though not surprising: foreign entities know how donors work, can access other funds to build their models and put together convincing business plans.

Of the solar providers that are receiving funding, we found that there were big geographic divides. Off-grid solar is concentrated in just a few regions in eastern and northern Tanzania, such as in Dar es Salaam, Mwanza and Arusha, while areas in the west and south are poorly served. 

Furthermore, the poorest people are missing out on good quality solar home systems as they are not affordable. People in Kigoma and Geita regions, for example, with less than $17 a month to spend on all their basic needs are living below the poverty line.  But a basic system comprising a 12 watts panel, three lanterns, a radio and a charger, would cost 40 percent of their monthly spending for three years.

This is not to judge solar providers – they cannot sell products for less than it costs to distribute them.  But it does suggest that more ambition, innovation and collaboration are needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals’ commitment to leave noone behind.

Tanzania has taken steps to encourage decentralised energy, including introducing rules, grants and advice to support mini-grid developers. But the industry says extra incentives, and a level playing field with the centralised grid, are key to getting more money flowing to this vital sector.

The government, development partners and local financial institutions need to take a number of steps to make this possible. This includes protecting off-grid providers from being undercut when a subsidised grid service arrives in their area, providing local banks and other lenders with low-interest loans and other incentives to start financing decentralised energy and investing in technologies that matter to the poorest, especially clean cooking fuels and supporting innovations to make services more affordable.

There is significant cause for hope. Currently, Tanzania’s draft action plan on Sustainable Energy for All, is under consultation and echoes many of these promising ideas. Plus the renewable sector got a boost at last year’s U.N. Climate Change conference in Marrakech when Tanzania joined other members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum to support a shift to 100 percent domestic renewable production. 

The challenge is to match political statements and policy initiatives with hard cash.  But as we found, there’s still a long way to go.

Sarah Best is senior researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)