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United Nations

Green power for all?

by Peter Hauff

In brief

Two Ethiopian women carrying firewood

Two Ethiopian women carrying firewood

In January, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dubbed 2012 the “UN year of sustainable energy for all”. Europe’s development-policymakers must decide what that should mean in practice.

The nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, has clearly left its mark on rich industrial countries. Germany, in particular, plans to replace nuclear power and coal power with “clean” energy even faster that planned before. But poor countries do not have this option. More than one fifth of the world population (1.5 billion people) do not even have access to electricity. At the beginning of the year, the World Bank set the target of closing this gap by 2030. As the largest donor for energy projects, it is currently working on a strategy paper against energy poverty.

Worldwide, nearly 2.7 billion people use dung or wood for cooking and heating. If they want light, they have to purchase expensive petroleum products and candles. As Kilian Reiche points out, these people have a right to “clean” energy just as do those who live in wealthy nations. Reiche heads iiDevelopment, a private-sector agency for infrastructure and renewable energy. He says that energy access for everyone is about more than merely “kilometers of power lines and kilowatt-hours”.

The UN has specified a number of tangible targets, some of which conflict with each other:
– energy for households, small enterprises and the public sector,
– environmental protection at the local and global levels,
– affordable prices and, accordingly, affordable operations and maintenance costs,
– verifiable quality standards,
– reliable supply even in rural areas and
– sound markets where local firms stand a chance.

There are hopes for secondary impacts too – such as for greater productivity, better healthcare and wider-based education thanks to electric lighting. Reiche warns that this mix of expectations is conflict-prone. Many developing countries, he says, are trying to achieve too many goals at once, even though small steps with measurable results would be more promising. In the end, the big question is what poor people expect from “sustainable energy”. Answers can be found in countries like Boliva, Brazil and Chile. As European aid workers there will confirm, these countries have been implementing policies to achieve universal access to energy.

„The obstacles are not technical. We know how to build power systems, design modern cooking stoves and meet energy demand efficiently,” says Kandeh Yumkella, head of the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). He also warns, however, that there is no global commitment to move energy access up on the political and development agendas.

Energy is more than “kilowatts”

With a volume of around € 54 billion, the EU and its members are the largest donor of development aid worldwide. Europe has the money and understands the issues. As Andris Piebalgs, the EU commissioner for international development, stated in January (D+C 2011/01, page 6), electricity is a requirement for universal clean water, education and basic health care. He considers energy “a requirement for practically all Millennium Development Goals”.

Nonetheless, Oliver Knight of Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) wants politicians to stay away from micromanaging energy projects. He advocates the use of Results-Based Financing (such as Output-Based Aid) to better target private sector initiatives. By generating new markets, keeping costs reasonable by encouraging competition, and defining clear objectives, "private entrepreneurs may be able – in some sub-sectors – to reach poor communities with new energy services,” said Knight. They could help recipient countries to raise significantly the number of citizens with access to modern energy, while reducing or avoiding CO2 emissions, creating new jobs and reducing indoor air pollution.

At a meeting of experts hosted by the EU’s energy initiative (EUEI-PDF) in Brussels, a number of participants told Knight, however, that OBA has its limits in poor regions. Competition, they argued, is only possible where there are several service providers, but many projects in developing countries depend on start-up assistance from the rich world. The experts argued that the EU should take a clearer stand on energy and development issues since doing so would help to implement the UN’s ambitious goal of “sustainable energy for all”, and allow for better response to market demands.

A lot of issues ­remain unresolved, and the World Bank’s new strategy does not answer all. Is there a way to make do without the construction of new coal plants and giant hydropower dams in technologically underdeveloped countries (see box on a new Ethiopian hydropower scheme on page 186)? And which power plants have to be discontinued in rich countries so that Africa can consume more power? After all, the Third World will only be able to consume more carbon-based energy if industrialised countries make do with less.

Peter Hauff