BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Parts of Africa will get left behind in the global push to provide electric power to all unless national governments and the international community agree on a plan for faster action in places that are lagging, a top energy official has warned.
Of the roughly 1 billion people who still lack access to electricity around the world, nearly 600 million live in sub-Saharan Africa, with the vast majority in rural areas.
“The proportion of the billion that lives in sub-Saharan Africa is increasing,” said Rachel Kyte, CEO of Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), a body set up by the United Nations.
“Within Africa, some countries are going faster than others, but those that aren’t going fast are going to get left behind because you need that electricity ... you need that clean energy for the urban growth and economic development they all want,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Some African countries, such as Kenya and Ethiopia, are setting a good example, said Kyte, who also serves as the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative on energy access.
Others - especially those mired in conflict and political instability, or emerging from war - are falling behind, shunned by investors as tough places to do business, she said.
They include countries like Central African Republic and Sierra Leone.
This week, governments, energy businesses and development experts will gather in Lisbon at a two-day forum organized by SEforALL to discuss ways to close the gap in making sustainable, affordable energy available to everyone.
A set of global development goals includes key energy targets to be met by 2030: ensuring universal access to modern energy, increasing substantially the share of renewables used, and doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency.
But data shows rates of progress are still too slow to meet the targets, with poor, marginalized people set to suffer most as a result of that shortfall, experts say.
Kyte gave examples of those most likely to be overlooked: a woman running a household in a rural community where men have left to seek work in the city; a disabled family head living in an urban slum; or an indigenous nomad in Mongolia or the Sahel.
Such households may be the hardest to reach using the traditional method of connecting homes to the power grid - but there are alternatives, Kyte emphasized.
“With mini-grids, micro-grids or off-grid systems, those people are reachable, and they are reachable with clean energy and they are reachable affordably,” she said.
Governments of countries doing badly on energy access need to set national targets, invest in infrastructure, and tackle corruption, Kyte said.
Even for the poorest states or those emerging from conflict, “prioritizing energy access is a real value-for-money approach to take, because lots of other things happen,” she added.
Switching from polluting fuels such as kerosene and diesel to solar power can improve people’s health, help children study and allow small businesses to flourish, experts say.
“Distributed energy” solutions - small-scale systems that operate independently of the main grid and are often powered by renewables - can be built quickly and nimbly in difficult situations, Kyte said.
They are also suitable for use in and around camps for refugees and displaced people, where failure to provide solar lamps or efficient cooking stoves can lead to deforestation.
Kyte hopes international agencies and businesses will put in place a global action plan in the coming months to provide clean power to people forced to flee their homes.
Similarly, she urged development banks, governments and companies to team up and work out what financial and technical aid is needed for the 20 countries that are home to four-fifths of the 1 billion still in the dark.
Another priority for poor nations is energy efficiency, she said, which could help avoid pollution and smog in their cities.
“If you talk about energy efficiency as the way to ensure clean air, clean water, low energy bills, buildings you want to live in, transport you want to travel in, then that becomes a big part of leaving no one behind,” Kyte said.
Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate