A Moroccan engineer cycles past the solar panels of the solar power station of Ain Beni Mathar near Oujda on May 31, 2011. The station provides 13% of the Moroccan energy needs it is claimed.
That’s the challenge the United Nations faces as it moves ahead with an effort that includes selling to the bottom of the economic pyramid, accessing fast-growing developing markets and leveraging technology developments and big data, all in the name of guaranteeing energy access for some of the world’s poorest people.
“The time is now,” says UN Foundation Executive Director Energy and Climate Richenda Van Leeuwen of the UN Secretary-General’s “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative at the UN. A set of three simple objectives reminiscent of the Millennium Development Goals challenges but with a 2030 timeline, the focus on energy reflects its centrality to other UN development goals of health, women’s rights and improved governance in developing countries.
“With the best will in the world we couldn’t hit these ambitious goals without a comprehensive multi-stakeholder effort,” Van Leeuwen told Breaking Energy in a recent interview, stressing the importance of private sector solutions to major public development problems. “We really do need to work with the private sector in order to get to the kind of transition that takes us past the current business model.”
The objectives, which have been lent special focus by the UN General Assembly declaring 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All amid a resounding public relations effort, are simple but broad. They include ensuring universal access to modern energy services, doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030.
The effort has also been specially highlighted by the leadership of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who can use the convening power of the organization to highlight the opportunities for business, especially as the world prepares for a gathering in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to mark the 20th anniversary of the original climate accords. A report on the International Year of Sustainability the UN General Assembly is anticipated in September.
Where There is Darkness, Light
The challenges of operating in countries with a limited consumer base, governance and market design issues and limited financial wherewithal are widely understood, but less apparent has been the “sea change” in the business opportunity offered by micro-financing and micro-payment systems, advances in data collection and organization as well as economic expansion while traditional markets remain under pressure.
The ability to collect new data and build on existing data-collection efforts is one of the major opportunities for the UN and its private-sector and government partners as they do more to illuminate the need for widely-available secure energy and to demonstrate the business opportunity, as well as measure progress both in terms of government support as well as private sector efforts. A range of UN and partner institutions are working to better define energy access and measure improvement, but Van Leeuwen said the UN Foundation in partnership with the UN Global Compact is encouraging companies to work on these issues and coordinate on metrics.
Practical help that the UN can offer ranges from pilot project coordination, training programs, “brokering new partnerships between stakeholders from government, the private sector and civil society,” research and development as well as traditional policy efforts that can better support market development, Van Leeuwen said, and encouraged businesses to access the Sustainable Energy for All website for initial guidance on how they could participate.
This is a rare opportunity for a “win-win” for development and international businesses seeking to access fast-growing developing markets: “Many developing countries are having very solid growth rates at a time of economic stress in other parts of the world,” Van Leeuwen said, underlining the opportunity for increasingly-affordable renewable generation sources as developed economy support for expanded renewable energy efforts falters.