Sustainable Energy for All: Interview with Rachel Kyte


In September 2015, world leaders came together to formulate 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 7th goal aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030. A few months later, 195 countries signed an agreement in Paris to limit global warming to less than 2°C.

The United Nation’s initiative, Sustainable Energy for All (SEforAll), is working to reach these targets while lifting over a billion people out of poverty. SEforAll has three objectives:

  1. Ensure universal access to modern energy services;

  2. Double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency;

  3. Double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.

Rachel Kyte is Chief Executive Officer of SEforAll, and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General. SNV had a chance to talk to Rachel about what is needed to live in a world where everyone has access to clean, affordable energy.

195 countries signed the Paris Climate Agreement, which is a great step forward. However, even if governments start to implement national policy changes, more action is needed in practical implementation. How can policy be turned into action and results effectively?

The innovation in Paris was that it was a bottom-up agreement, which is a similar structure to the SDGs. The vision of more sustainable development and an economy in balance with a world well below a 2 degree increase, comes from domestic economic planning. Around the world countries are adjusting their economic and development plans, or thinking through what kinds of targets they need to set domestically in order to get onto the right path.

An important thing to note is that the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) as defined prior to the Paris Agreement would still cause a global temperature rise of 3-3.5 degrees, which is insufficient to prevent severe climate impacts. This means that even those countries that have robust NDCs with inclusive and positive processes across government, civil society and business, need to be recalibrated for a 2 degree target. Some NDCs have been well thought through, and governments know where they are now, where they want to go, and what they need to do to get there. The question there is really making sure they stay on track and build the need for political and economic consensus. There are other examples where the NDCs are a starting point but probably need more work and inclusion from different actors to have sufficiently ambitious targets. And those countries will need support from the international community to get those targets right.

There is a third group of countries, who are in conflict or restricted in other ways, and their NDCs will need remedial work. But it is really important that all NDCs have to be owned by government and the people. All the international processes to support the implementation of NDCs have to allow for integration in domestic planning processes.

SNV has been working to provide energy for low-income people, especially those in remote rural areas for many years. How can SNV and other NGOs increase involvement and improve our work in order to reach more people?

The kinds of partnerships SNV has been involved in in pursuing access to renewable energy, are becoming more and more important. SNV’s work has been ahead of its time, but time has now come for all to get involved. What I mean by that is if we look at the energy transition, which is needed to realise the Paris Agreement and SDG 7, countries need to build an integrated plan of how everyone will have access to clean and affordable energy sooner rather than later. Distributed energy has quickly become more competitive because of the tumbling price of renewables, new business models, an interest of the financial sector to be part of this fast-growing area, and the fact that the risk-adjusted returns in investing in some of these businesses are beneficial. Governments needs to realise that distributed renewables can help close the energy access gap while simultaneously working on grid improvements and grid-connected projects. For most governments, this has not been a traditional
way of thinking about their future energy system. So organisations like SNV are essential in supporting off-grid business models and operators, providing technical support to small social enterprises as the market is burgeoning. I believe SNV and its partners have played a very important role in getting us to this point, and now I hope this can be a point of take-off and off-grid energy can go to scale.

Private sector investment is crucial if we are to meet our energy goals. How can we work to increase private sector involvement in this area?

We can’t do it without the private sector. It’s the private sector that invests in infrastructure, and innovates modern technology. They also adopt innovative business models, such as pay-as-you-go, to bring already cheaper renewable technologies to people living on 2 dollars a day. The public sector is now increasingly using innovation labs and competitions to focus innovation efforts of the private sector to address public problems.

There’s plenty of money in the global economy; it’s just about inducing that money into the solutions we need now and getting the risk-adjusted reward correct for the operators and investors to invest in renewables, off-grid and access solutions. The technology is mostly there, the finance is available, but needs to be redirected, and public policy could actually be an accelerator. There is truly a role for private-public partnerships. It’s about government setting the right climate, regulations and incentives.

Off-grid electricity and clean cooking especially benefit women. How can adoption of sustainable energy be accelerated through women’s leadership?

The vast majority of micro and small business owners in emerging markets are women. Reaching out to, enabling and empowering women to start and build businesses makes just as much sense in the off-grid distributed clean energy sector as it does in any other. There are also other phenomena when working with women as business owners: they have much higher commitment to repayments, and are more loyal as clients for banks. The whole phenomena around women in business that the energy sector should understand when trying to speed up the adoption of off-grid clean energy, is that if women don’t have access to power, then their participation in the economy and ability to support their children will be compromised. So there is a very significant gender impact on bringing power into a community.

We are making progress in getting clean cooking technologies in the hands of women but not as much as we need. There has been a revolution in clean lighting solutions because rather than paying for a dirty kerosene lamp, we have been successful in making the business case to buy a clean one. It’s different with clean cooking. When a woman walks for five hours to collect dung or wood, the only thing that is being spent is her time. And her time is not valued. So there is no economic imperative to shift from something which people think is free to something they have to pay for. There is a deeper social barrier around getting people to pay for clean cooking. Women suffer the most from unclean cooking, but we have to look at women not as victims, but as part of the solution. This is something that the Netherlands and SNV have been really pushing forward in recent years.

SEforAll’s mission states that to achieve its three objectives, a radical rethink of the way we produce, distribute and consume energy is required. What are some examples of radical thinking that have worked in the past and could work now?

Efficiency is very important. Every country needs to put an efficiency lens when looking at the future of our energy systems, also developing countries. If you think about how to maximise energy productivity by using the cheapest, easiest power source that is available, you can achieve real savings. That is very true in developed and fast-growing economies, where the pathway to efficiency has to shift considerably. Put efficiency first and then focus on access.

We also have to change the energy mix. Countries need to ask themselves some questions: Can we import a cleaner energy? Can we get access to resourceful hydroelectricity; access to gas instead of coal; access to wind energy? Do we have geo-thermal as a resource available? The energy mix has to shift to become cleaner.

If we focus on a truly integrated energy plan, distributed and grid-connected, embracing mini-grid and home-based solutions, and working out how to connect the grid to off-grid solutions down the line – if it’s an integrated vision, I believe we can close the access gap quicker and there is a huge economic benefit to doing so. We are encouraging an approach that many countries aren’t used to. Up to now it has really been focussed on generation capacity and going with what is perceived as the ‘cheaper’ source without factoring in sustainable development.

What are your plans and targets for SEforAll in the next few years? How do organisations such as SNV feature in them?

We’ve just pivoted in 2015 from advocating for goals on sustainable energy and securing an ambitious Paris Agreement, to supporting action and driving implementation.

We have produced a strategic framework which lays out a theory of change about how our three goals can be pursued. The access goal should be achieved earlier than 2030, or at least we should set our sights on fast forwarding it. It is part of the fundamental promise that we wouldn’t leave anybody behind in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Globally we are working on marshalling the evidence and helping people see what kind of policy action they need to take. We’ve already produced a global tracking framework together with many of our partners, and there are more knowledge products coming forward under the SEforAll banner.

It is also important to benchmark progress. Not for ranking but to see who’s moving, how fast they are moving and where success lies. Stories of success travel very slowly. People don’t know how much is going on, even in their own domestic market. So it’s important to share this knowledge in order to drive action on access.

SEforAll offers a platform, which SNV is already committed to, to get access at the highest level so they can bring entrepreneurs and social enterprises in the same room with policy makers. This platforms provides access to the best quality data analysis, case studies and stories, to share what works and show how it can go to scale. We are the place for everyone who is really committed to SDG 7 – governments, businesses, social enterprises, NGOs – to do the things that they can do in partnership but can’t do alone.

For organisations like SNV who identified this as a priority issue a number of years ago, now is the time to push forward. Everybody is lined up and pointed in the same direction. There is no global disagreement about which points on the horizon we are headed towards. There may be disagreement about how long it is taking to get there, but it is important that SNV stays the course and continues to be a long-term partner for change.

This is an extract from our annual publication, SNV Connect 2016. Read the full magazine to find out how our work in Agriculture, Energy and Water, Sanitation & Hygiene is improving the lives of millions of people around the world!