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Policy, Access, and Decentralization: Diving into the energy system with Rachel Kyte

We are officially one month into the 2020 Student Energy Leaders Fellowship! A core part of the Leaders program is a monthly webinar and mass mentorship session with a leading energy expert – here’s a sneak peek into our conversation with Rachel Kyte, for our ‘Energy Systems 101’ Unit.

  • What are the biggest obstacles to moving away from a fossil fuel-dependent energy system and achieving net zero emissions by 2050?
  • Where do we stand now on the global energy transition?
  • What skills should young people develop for their careers?
  • What issues need more attention?

These are some of the questions we dove into on our webinar with Rachel Kyte, Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and formerly the CEO and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All. We’ve summarized some of our key learnings:

We’re not on track to meeting the goals of SDG7 by 2030. Here’s why:

840 million people still lack access to energy. This itself is likely an underestimate of the actual number, as it is self-reported by governments that have an incentive to show that more progress has been made than has actually taken place. In addition to those without energy, there are a billion more without access to reliable, affordable energy. Most of these communities are concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia, so there is a real geopolitical risk of large parts of the world being left behind, as access to energy is critical for alleviating poverty, improving education and healthcare outcomes, and providing a foundation for economic development.

Energy demand is predicted to rise enormously, both due to rising income, and increased demands for heating and cooling in many parts of the world. As the climate crisis gives rise to record summer temperatures, thermal comfort will become a significant public health issue, and demand for air conditioning will rise. With over 80% of the world’s energy still supplied by fossil fuels, rising energy demand will also lead to rising emissions.

There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the clean energy transition.

Despite the sobering statistics on energy access and rising emissions, there is still meaningful progress being made, and more and more opportunities for young people to guide the transition to a just and sustainable energy future.

 The price of renewable energy continues to drop steeply, contributing to positive developments for electric vehicles, green hydrogen, and other emissions-intensive sectors.

While many governments continue to show weak political leadership, there are some promising signs: there is an increasing amount of ‘South-South’ finance mobilized towards decentralized energy infrastructure (for example, Indian investment in mini-grids across the Sahel), demonstrating an alternative to the risk-averse approach of development assistance from the Global North.

For young people who are driven to transform the energy system, there is an entirely new generation of energy jobs on the horizon. We’ll need public policy that embraces the need to build green infrastructure at the speed and scale needed to tackle climate change, and we’ll need a completely different systems analysis, encompassing centralized and decentralized energy, modern renewables, buildings and vehicles that store and give back power, and energy produced and consumed across political boundaries.

 We need an urgent shift to integrated energy planning.

It used to be that bringing energy to communities meant extending the central grid, but it is clear now that this is not the most effective solution in many cases. Many of those without energy access are living on the peripheries of fast-urbanizing cities with grids ill-equipped to handle an increasing electric load, and others are in rural and remote areas where extending the grid would be an expensive, resource-intensive undertaking. Still others might have access to a grid, but may not be able to afford to connect to it. For these reasons, integrated energy planning – figuring out where the grid should be the provider of power, and where it should be supplemented with off-grid and decentralized energy sources – should be prioritized by decision-makers, and young people seeking careers in the energy sector.

Integrated energy planning extends beyond cities and peri-urban areas, and might include trans-national and trans-continental energy planning. Problems with renewable energy and green infrastructure availability can in some cases be solved by working collaboratively across multiple jurisdictions, yet the energy security debate often limits this type of collaboration.

Decentralized energy empowers communities (particularly women within those communities), but it is a potential challenge to the political status quo.

Decentralized energy comes with many other benefits aside from providing energy access. It empowers communities to develop, own and govern energy infrastructure that is appropriate for their needs. Women tend to disproportionately bear the effects of energy poverty, from missing out on income-generating opportunities due to time spent collecting cooking fuels to experiencing severe health impacts from indoor air pollution. Access to decentralized energy could free up time, improve health outcomes, and allow greater involvement in energy governance for women.

However, the road to a more decentralized energy system won’t be easy. Incumbency, and locked-in utilities and infrastructure creates a natural bias against decentralized energy. Going up against entrenched energy ministries and institutional structures that are reluctant to lose central control of the energy system presents another major political and bureaucratic hurdle. In addition to the institutional barriers, development finance remains slow-moving and risk-averse, with only 1% of development assistance going into off-grid, decentralized energy.

Progress on energy efficiency is slowing down, even though conserving energy is the cheapest way to reduce emissions.

To meet the SDG7 goals on energy efficiency, the rate of improvement in energy efficiency needs to be over 3% annually – currently, it is only 1%, and slowing down. Considering that improving energy efficiency is the cheapest way to curb emissions, and an area that presents numerous new job opportunities, this is a major issue that needs more attention. Energy efficiency is often a hard sell for governments, industry, the financial sector and even the public, as there are deep social preferences for building new things and developing new technologies to tackle emerging problems, rather than valuing the cost and emissions savings from not doing things.

Another emerging dilemma over the next ten years will be attempts by the energy industry to offset their growing emissions with forestry and other natural climate solutions. While nature-based solutions are an integral part of addressing the climate crisis, offsets should be used as a last resort. Instead, emissions should be curbed directly at the source or not produced at all.

 Every month of the Student Energy Leaders Fellowship features a webinar with a leading energy expert. The Leaders Fellowship cohort can submit questions in advance and during the presentation, to guide the discussion.

 About Rachel Kyte

Recently named one of Time magazine’s 15 Women Leading the Fight Against Climate Change, Rachel Kyte is a trailblazing leader and expert in sustainable energy and energy access, and a long-time champion of young people. Formerly the CEO and Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All), Rachel is stepping into her new role as Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Rachel has also served as the World Bank Group’s VP and Special Envoy for Climate Change, leading the Bank Group’s efforts in campaigning for the Paris Agreement and mobilizing billions of dollars to support developing countries to address climate change. She was recently honoured by Queen Elizabeth’s 2020 New Year Honours list for her critical efforts combating climate change and serving in the field of sustainable energy.