Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 29 September 2020

Renewables light path to world without poverty

Non-profit organisation Gogla this week meets in Dubai to find ways to bring cleaner, affordable energy to more than a billion of the world’s poor, but this goal will depend more on private sector R&D than philanthropy.
Bare hanging light bulb in studio
Bare hanging light bulb in studio

Some things we take for granted – a cold drink from the refrigerator, light bulbs to dispel the darkness, air-conditioning to make the hottest summer tolerable.

But for more than a billion of the world’s poorest people living without electricity, these are unimaginable luxuries.

Providing better and cleaner energy is the goal of the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association (Gogla), which holds its fourth conference in Dubai this week and will examine ways to bring lighting and electricity to those who have none.

Formed three years ago by the World Bank, Gogla is a non-profit organisation that partners with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank, to work with the private sector to finance investment in developing countries in order to achieve sustainable growth.

Failure to provide a reliable power supply can create a cycle of poverty that is hard to break, says Anita Marangoly George, World Bank Group senior director.

“Lack of energy limits job creation and access to health and education,” says Ms Marangoly George. “Supporting universal access to reliable modern energy is a priority. Ending poverty will not be possible without adequate energy.”

Population density and high costs compound the problem for many undersupplied regions, she says. If the population is too scattered it becomes impractical to extend the grid, especially in impoverished areas that cannot afford expensive solutions.

In addition to the billion people living without electricity, 3 billion more – four out 10 of the world’s population – do not have access to modern fuel for cooking and heating, says Ms Marangoly George.

They burn traditional fuels such as wood, kerosene, dung and coal in their homes, which brings serious health risks.

The World Bank Group runs three programmes – Lighting Africa, Lighting Asia and Lighting Global – through which it pushes for the development and distribution of high-quality, cheap options.

That includes making sure the right finance is available across the entire supply chain and that those products coming to the market are safe, durable and officially guaranteed.

It also means encouraging governments to build off-grid components into their power plans while funding campaigns to educate users about the benefits of high-quality, off-grid lighting and energy, says Ms Marangoly George.

Another international initiative, known as Sustainable Energy for All, is trying to advance access to power for the poor. It is headed jointly by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim.

It has set three targets for 2030: universal energy access; doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and doubling the share of renewables in the global energy mix.

This has been incorporated into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, with more than 100 countries working with private-sector partners.

One of those is Philips Lighting, which is developing low-cost, solar-powered devices.

Harry Verhaar, head of global public and government affairs at Philips Lighting, says companies play a “crucial role in providing the technology, product and system solutions that allow people to move away from kerosene and candles”.

Burning traditional fuel indoors causes fires and respiratory illnesses that kill 1.5 million people each year, he says.

“This is the same population as Abu Dhabi city,” says Mr Verhaar. “We need to take action now to address the energy access problem, and we can do this with technology that exists.

“For example, a solar-powered Led lantern can light a home for a third of the cost that a family spends a year on kerosene, and is available now.”

Kerosene lamps produce 270,000 tonnes of “black carbon” a year, equal to 240 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – 4.5 per cent of the United States’ emissions.

Lighting and cooking using traditional methods costs US$23 billion (Dh84.47bn) a year. Lighting costs the poor $100 a kilowatt hour, more than 100 times the cost in richer countries.

A study by the charity SolarAid estimates that the poorest people spend a 10th of their income on fuel for lighting.

Philips’s growing portfolio of solar-Led products and systems includes lanterns, street lighting and home systems that power small appliances, says Mr Verhaar. These are a reflection of the industry’s overall move to developing sustainable rural, off-grid energy access using sources such as solar and wind power, and biomass and microgrids.

Biomass comes from organic materials such as manure or plants, while microgrids are small grids that can operate even if disconnected from a central source.

“We need the industry to provide good quality and sustainable solutions,” says Mr Verhaar. “We need the governments to design the energy and financing policies and invest in the sector.

“And we need micro-financing and local banks to create and implement the financing mechanisms. In my view, philanthropy is a noble thing driven by people who are committed to a cause and passionate in making a difference to humanity.

“In essence, you can also see philanthropy as a pre-business development activity. It raises awareness and puts a subject on the public and private-sector radar screens.”

But he points out that “markets cannot develop, grow and flourish on philanthropy alone”, which is why the private sector is needed to make efforts economically viable.

“For energy access and the aim of ending light poverty, this means that solar-Led lighting as a sector will be able to stand on its own feet, and the communities acquiring and benefiting from these solutions will take their socio-economic development in their own hands.”

Russell Sturm, global head of energy access at the IFC, says the high cost of building electricity grids for remote populations makes them too expensive or impractical.

“Thus there are more people un-electrified today than were alive at the time Thomas Edison commercialised electric light,” says Mr Sturm.

But he says the modern off-grid industry “is the ray of light for a problem that has proven intractable to date”.

“We are on the cusp of a new era. And because the solutions are fully commercial, they don’t rely on limited sources of charitable funding.

“What was once a group of motivated and energetic, but inexperienced, entrepreneurs has built one of the most dynamic industries in existence.”

Mr Sturm says technological advances have allowed for a 90 per cent price reduction for batteries, solar cells and Led lights in the past 13 years. In the same time, Led lighting has become 10,000 per cent more efficient. These developments have made new products available to “last mile” users who were outside of the reach of modern technology.

Mr Sturm says Led lights and efficient phone-charging technology have lead to a “current explosion in small solar devices under $50”, with more than 14 million verified products sold so far. In the future, he imagines super-efficient televisions, fans, radios and refrigeration will “catalyse a further leap of sales of cost-effective larger solar systems to power more and more services”.

“Thus it is no longer just a solar-lighting industry but a solar-energy services industry, providing the previously underserved to climb the energy ladder, emerge from a state of energy poverty and leap up the economic development mountain.”

halbustani@thenational.ae

Updated: October 26, 2015 04:00 AM

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