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Accelerating the energy transition through energy access: Q&A with Damilola Ogunbiyi

On the occasion of the Ministerial Thematic Forums on Energy, we found out more about how to raise ambition for a just transition to clean energy, including what the science community can do to support progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal #7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

This article is part of the ISC’s Transform21 series, which features resources from our network of scientists and change-makers to help inform the urgent transformations needed to achieve climate and biodiversity goals.

This week sees an important step on the road to the High-level Dialogue on Energy that will take place under the auspices of the UN General Assembly in September: the Ministerial Thematic Forums on Energy, which conclude tomorrow, on 25 June. The Forums bring together Ministers from national governments and leaders from business, cities, civil society and youth organizations to showcase solutions and partnerships and present their Energy Compacts, setting out their voluntary commitments and actions.

In this crucial year for energy policy, we spoke to Damilola Ogunbiyi, High-level Champion for the Dialogue.

Q: As well as being CEO of SEforALL and Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Sustainable Energy for All, you’re also Co-Chair of the COP26 Energy Transition Council. What does the COP26 Energy Transition Council do, and what does your role entail?

The COP26 Energy Transition Council (ETC) aims to bring global leadership together to accelerate the energy transition, and access to finance remains the biggest barrier to the clean energy transition. There are a series of activities that have taken place and that will continue in the lead-up to COP26 in Glasgow this November. These include country dialogues, and surveys of some of the largest UK-based private financiers of energy in Africa to understand what is required to unlock investments at greater scale.

What has been revealed is that the ETC could play a key role in unlocking finance by creating an international ecosystem of priority projects and blended finance and by mobilizing guarantees and risk-mitigating instruments from Development Finance Institutions and Donor Governments. As a next step, similar surveys will be conducted in other regions in addition to focused conversations with the ETC members, with surveyed financiers for Africa and with focus Governments on specific projects.

My role involves rallying the right people to join these conversations so that we can build a road map that will unlock financing to developing regions that want to transition but that also want to ensure their development priorities are underpinned by access to electricity for everyone. This is the starting point – when we understand that energy access is linked to transition then we can also recognize the immense opportunity to electrify the 760 million people who currently lack electricity – with 570 million of those living in Africa. In my mind, the objective absolutely must be what happens the day after COP26. There is an opportunity for the ETC to have impact well into the future. This is my focus.

Q: What do you see as the most significant barriers to transitioning to clean energy today?

This really depends on who you are talking about. Transitioning for countries like Rwanda, Nigeria or Pakistan is going to look very different than for a country in Europe.

The barriers are quite stark for most developing countries. First and foremost, there is the notion of fairness and how that impacts the whole conversation around a just transition.

This statistic will put the issue of a just transition into context: Excluding South Africa, the remaining 1 billion people in Sub-Saharan Africa are serviced by a power generating capacity of around 80 gigawatts and have contributed less than 1 percent of cumulative CO2 emissions. This is roughly the same capacity consumed by a single European country like Germany, for instance.

We have a situation where many countries are trying to develop to a level where their citizens have universal energy access, and they can industrialize – so this is about economic development. And conversely, you have other countries that have become rich from decades of fossil fuels now telling these countries that they need to transition at the same pace as them, without the resources needed to get there. In this scenario, developing countries are being asked to pay the most when they have contributed the least to the problem.

The only way we are going to create fairness in this scenario is to ensure that countries have the resources they need to transition equitably. Financial and technical resources are a hurdle, and it is something that we at SEforAll see as a priority. In response, we have mobilized a couple of important solutions.

Results-based financing (RBF) is a funding mechanism proven to deliver connections faster and more efficiently. We are advocating for scaling RBF and have also launched our own RBF to help speed and scale access to energy in Africa, the Universal Energy Facility (UEF). The UEF is a multi-donor RBF facility that provides incentive payments for verified end-user electricity connections. The UEF is currently operating in Benin, Madagascar and Sierra Leone to incentivize mini-grid developments. But it aspires to be a USD 500 million pan-Africa facility by 2023 (USD 100 million by the end of this year) and to deliver approximately 2 million new electricity connections and 300,000 clean cooking solutions by 2023.

This can only be possible with the support of partners, which is the cornerstone of everything we are doing to achieve SDG7 by 2030.

SEforAll is also mobilizing the support of some very important partners who are involved in creating a catalytic fund that will address energy poverty. In fact, an initiative with The Rockefeller and IKEA Foundations was announced at the Ministerial Thematic Forums earlier this week. This Ministerial Forum is a milestone on the path to the UN High-level Dialogue on Energy in September. The Ministerial event will involve over 30 countries that are global champions, and 16 UN and development institutions, plus 170 technical experts from the public and private sectors, who are all working on creating a viable pathway to 2030. This is the embodiment of mobilizing people from all corners of the world to find a solution and this is exactly what it will take.

Q: What needs to happen in order to transition to clean energy whilst protecting the livelihoods of those who depend on the coal industry? Are there examples of best practice available?

As the UN Secretary-General has said consistently, to achieve SDG7 and net zero emissions by 2050, we have to end coal. SEforALL and organizations around the world recognize there is no sustainable future in coal-fired power. However, we also recognize that many countries will need time and long-term support to make a just transition, one that leaves no-one behind, to more sustainable sources of energy. We have to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and re-direct funds towards a just, inclusive energy transition. And we must rapidly scale up renewables. An investment in sustainable energy is an investment in a healthier and more prosperous future for all.

The global economy is increasingly being powered by clean and efficient sources of energy, which are now cheaper than fossil fuels. According to research, dollar for dollar investments in clean energy create three and a half times the number of jobs compared to fossil fuels. In Africa alone, each USD 1 million invested in large-scale solar generation projects creates around 80 jobs.

Shifting investment towards home-grown renewables will not only help close electricity access gaps but develop energy security and avoid stranded assets based on fossil fuel infrastructure. Renewables are now the most cost-effective new source of electricity in almost every country in the world. For power generation, over half of all coal plants currently in operation cost more to run than building new renewables. New investments in renewables are more economical than new investments in coal, which would make future coal-based power plants stranded assets.

Governments should also take the opportunity to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. With a 1.2 percent global increase in green investment and a mere 0.4 percent decrease in fossil fuel investments, valuable jobs can be created, and the world can be on track to achieve the Paris Agreement. We need to invest in people. Technical, business and entrepreneurship training are all necessary to localize industry and meet the needs of what could be a sizeable domestic market in sustainable energy.

Q: What would you like to see from the world’s energy ministers and other policy-makers to raise ambition for a transition to clean energy in 2021?

The UN High-level Dialogue on Energy is an important event on the road to COP26 this year – and beyond. This event represents the first time in over 40 years – literally a generation – that the UN Secretary-General has convened a summit-level event exclusively on energy. The last time this happened was during the oil crisis in 1981. This really shows the seriousness of the current environment. I believe the world is now waking up and realizing that we must tackle the energy transition to achieve net zero by 2050. This is a fact that cannot be ignored when the energy sector accounts for 73% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. But this means we must address energy access gaps as part of a just and equitable energy transition.

A major outcome of this Summit will be new Energy Compacts that capture concrete commitments and provide a pathway to achieving SDG7 by 2030. These are public and trackable voluntary commitments that are aligned with the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement and that shine a light on the important energy component that must first be solved in the race to climate neutrality. We are asking countries, companies, cities, financial institutions, philanthropies, civil society and global citizens to sign onto an Energy Compact to demonstrate their ambition and the concrete actions they will take to help ensure everyone has access to affordable and clean energy and that the world at large transitions to clean energy.

Q: What would you like to see from the engineering and science community in terms of helping to provide the knowledge needed to support a clean energy transition? Where are the knowledge gaps?

We need more innovation. The levelized cost per unit of electricity (LCOE) from new utility-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) power plants has dropped about 90 percent over the last decade. India reported the lowest LCOE in the world for solar PV in 2019. But we need more innovation to keep bringing costs down and to see those cost reductions in countries around the world. The STEM community can help ramp up the pace of innovations to ensure that prices continue to come down on solar and other renewable energy sources. And we also need the expertise of scientists to help us reach those in the last mile – these are rural populations that are isolated and far from grids. We need to ensure that we reach these people in the most efficient and economical way possible to bring economic development and not just a single light bulb.

The science community can support more effective provision and availability of data to enable the much needed scale-up of investments in renewable energy. This includes information on optimal renewable sites, communities that are well positioned for investments in electrification, and data on the adoption and impact of clean cooking solutions.

And social scientists can affect community-wide change by helping to change perceptions around off-grid renewable energy options versus electricity from the grid. If we can raise awareness at the community level that distributed renewables, including mini-grids and stand-alone solar systems, can provide sufficient power for productive use, then people may begin to change their mindsets.

Damilola Ogunbiyi

Damilola Ogunbiyi

Damilola Ogunbiyi is the CEO of Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All and Co-Chair of UN-Energy. She is also a Commissioner for the Global Commission to End Energy Poverty and the Co-Chair of the COP26 Energy Transition Council. She is a global leader and advocate for the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7), which calls for access to reliable, affordable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030, in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change. Prior to joining SEforALL, Mrs. Ogunbiyi was the first female Managing Director of the Nigerian Rural Electrification Agency where she was responsible for successfully negotiating the Nigerian Electrification Project which is a USD 550 million facility (World Bank USD 350m and African Development Bank USD 200m) to rapidly construct solar mini-grids and deploy solar home systems across Nigeria to close energy access gaps.


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This report is one of five publications developed through the IIASA-ISC Consultative Science Platform “Bouncing Forward Sustainably: Pathways to a post-COVID world” and launched in January 2021.

Photo: International Renewable Energy Agency via Flickr (courtesy of the Seychelles Public Utilities Corporation).

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