Upscaling Local Solar and Renewables: Keys to Unlocking Universal Energy Access, Sustainable Development

African Children Study Using Solar Clean Energy

A new study from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) highlights the “revolutionary” role distributed, local solar and other renewable energy resources are playing, and the much greater role they can play, in achieving Sustainable Development Goal 7 – providing universal, clean energy access for all in the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Innovative legislative, regulatory and financial markets mechanisms designed to streamline and upscale market and industry growth and development need to be put into place if that potential is to be realized, however, according to “Transformational Energy Access,” UNCTAD’s latest annual report regarding development across the world’s 47 LDCs.

The poorest Africans pay some of the highest prices for energy in the world, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s Africa Progress Panel points out in a 2015 report. Moreover, just four LDCs were on pace to achieve internationally agreed upon energy distribution goals by 2030, according to UNCTAD’s 2017 LDC development report.

Substantial progress towards achieving universal clean energy access by 2030 is being made in LDCs. That said, investment aimed directly at achieving the 17 UN SDGs will require a 350 percent annual increase in the rate of electrification, UNCTAD says.

Achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Poverty and Electricity Access in Selected Developing Countries
Poverty and electricity access in selected developing countries, circles sized by total population. Click here to enlarge. | Source: The Economist

Access to affordable, reliable, resilient and environmentally sustainable electricity is a keystone not just with regard to achieving universal energy access, but many, if not all, the UN’s 17 SDGs. “Achieving Sustainable Development Goal 7 is not only a question of satisfying households’ basic energy needs.”

“That in itself has valuable welfare implications, but we need to go beyond […] For electrification to transform LDC economies, modern energy provision needs to spur productivity increases and unlock the production of more goods and services,” UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi was quoted in a press release.

Gaining the ability to take advantage of locally available solar, wind, biomass, small-scale hydro, waste, tidal and other marine renewable energy resources could pave the way for LDCs to achieve universal energy access, as well as lay the foundation for economically, socially and environmentally sustainable development and growth, UNCTAD says.

Unprecedented gains in electrification are being made in many of the world’s developing nations and LDCs thanks in large part in sharp drops and increased availability of the latest solar photovoltaic (PV), energy storage, smart grid and digitally networked, high energy efficiency devices and equipment.

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The rapid development and growth for mobile, pay-go households solar energy systems, products and services in Sub-Saharan Africa, Bangladesh, India and other parts of the developing and less industrially developed world offers a prime example. “While these have brought some progress, they fall short of the game-changing access to power that they need to transform their economies,” however, according to UNCTAD.

“Utility-scale renewable technologies capable of feeding the grids and mini-grids necessary not only to power homes, but also to grow businesses and industries, need to be deployed rapidly. But to achieve this, the least developed countries must overcome important technological, economic and institutional obstacles. This will require both the right national policies and stronger international support,” the UN agency says.

Electrification Projects in Dharnai, a Village in Eastern India
Electrification projects in Dharnai, a village in eastern India. | Source: The Breakthrough

Seeds of a self-sustaining sustainable economy

The US-Africa Development Foundation (USADF) is playing a critical role in doing just that. “In many remote regions where the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) operates, distributed energy generation through a pay-as-you-go model has revolutionized energy access for low-income populations,” Regional Director Tom Coogan explained via email.

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Rooftop-installed solar home systems, made more affordable by companies offering small, spread-out installment payments via pay-as-you-go technology, have allowed African companies to offer solutions and reach new customers.

The seeds of a self-sustaining cycle of sustainable development and growth are being planted as a result. The USADF team provided three examples:

In Harbel, Liberia, USADF funded Liberian Energy Network (LEN) to begin sales to local rubber tappers. None of these tappers had any form of access to electricity before. As a result of this seed capital, LEN has since made $149,534 from sales of merchandise and is now fully sustaining itself while operating in the face of numerous constraints and challenges. They have sold 4,245 solar home systems and lanterns to households to date, benefiting over 20,000 Liberians. LEN collaborates with another commercial lender in Liberia with which to establish a revolving line of credit.

USADF funded Sky Power PLC, an Ethiopian company which is doing what virtually no other company will do, targeting customers in the Somali region of Ethiopia, one of the country’s most marginalized areas. Sky Power is on track to sell to 1,000 customers during the period of the grant alone. In the past, these customers would have been considered unreachable by traditional energy technologies. Sky Power offers a variety of home solar products tailored to its customers’ needs and payable by credit if customers cannot afford the full cost upfront.

Via the Women in Energy Challenge, USADF has funded Great Lakes Power Ltd, a woman-owned energy company working in rural Rwanda. Great Lakes Power sells to customers on a lease-to-own basis, and offers a range of products that can meet the needs of different levels of customers. The company is considering expansion to the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), another vast market that is still largely untapped which Great Lakes Power aims to reach with its household solar technology. comment

* Cover credit: flickr @UN Women Asia and the Pacific