OPINION: Why expanded energy access is key to an equitable COVID-19 recovery

by Rajiv Shah | Rockefeller Foundation
Thursday, 24 September 2020 16:59 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A man stands inside his house illuminated by solar energy at Meerwada village of Guna district in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, June 18, 2012. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Image Caption and Rights Information

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

The pandemic has driven interactions online - but not for those without electricity. Expanding access can change that

Rajiv Shah is president of The Rockefeller Foundation.

For all the talk about the remarkable, virtual nature of this year’s United Nations General Assembly week, videoconferencing is a routine way of life for its participants.

But that’s not the case for too many people around the world whose lives depend on the decisions made at the UN this week: the 800 million people still living without electricity, and another 1.2 billion people whose electricity access is not reliable enough to even dial into Zoom.

While the pandemic accelerated digitization and economic interconnectedness, it has further isolated billions of people living without reliable electricity. This energy poverty makes it harder to fight Covid-19 and achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

As a result, it is increasingly clear that unless we make progress on SDG 7 – ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all – it will be difficult to achieve an equitable recovery from this crisis.

Before the pandemic halted travel, I visited a market in Derni, a remote village in the Indian state of Bihar. On a typical evening, the central power grid would cut electricity around dusk. Market stalls would shut. Families would burn coal to cook meals and light kerosene lamps to see, choking the air and emitting deadly black carbon.

The daily realities were punishing: dark streets were unsafe, children couldn’t study after sunset and often were sickened by air pollution, which kills nearly 4 million people each year. Workers were limited to manual tools and daylight hours so no businesses could scale.

This pandemic has exposed and accelerated many inequities. Racial minorities and the impoverished are suffering the most, disproportionately losing lives and livelihoods.

While America’s billionaires grew their combined wealth by nearly a trillion dollars this year, the UN estimates COVID-19 is pushing as many as 580 million people below an expanded global poverty line of $5 a day.

Meanwhile women have lost jobs nearly twice as often as men, and every month of lockdown brings 5 million more acts of gender-based violence worldwide.

If we do nothing, decades of progress on these inequities and climate change will be erased. But if we make investments now to enable an equitable recovery, we can power a future brighter than we ever imagined – more sustainable, safer from pandemic threats, and better for world’s poorest 2 billion, who can enter a growing and sustainable global economy.

An equitable recovery starts with ensuring all aspects of the health response – from testing and tracing, to the distribution of vaccines and support services – go first to the highest-risk communities.

An equitable recovery also includes access to power: only 28% of Africa’s health centers have reliable electricity, while a staggering one-in-four have no electricity.

Accelerating progress requires power: namely electricity. Just as energy infrastructure investments powered economic recoveries after the Great Depression and Great Recession, today the world needs a massive, public-private investment in green infrastructure that unlocks inclusive growth for everyone, especially those left behind.

For industrial economies, that means high-speed broadband, smart logistics and seamless supply chains – and energy is foundational to all of that. Without electricity, you’re powerless in today’s global economy.

You might believe increasing electricity access and consumption must worsen the climate crisis. Five years ago, you’d have been right. But with new breakthroughs in distributed renewables, it’s now possible to end energy poverty in 10 years without accelerating climate change.

At The Rockefeller Foundation, we believe solar-powered mini-grids are a key part of enabling a sustainable, equitable recovery.

Independent of costly and difficult to expand grid infrastructure, they use decentralized systems, advanced batteries, and cloud computing technologies to generate, store, and distribute electricity. As such, they can provide renewable, reliable power to people who never had it before.

For 2 billion people living with no or unreliable access to electricity, distributed renewables provide a pathway to economic inclusion and prosperity.

I saw this first hand in Bihar last November. Our Smart Power India affiliate had installed a mini-grid network across some of the country’s poorest regions.

That night, when the sun set, the power stayed on. Shops stayed open, machines whirred, appliances hummed. It was both ordinary and extraordinary – a glimpse of a brighter future.