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Wanted: Access To Energy For All By 2030

The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

“I was studying under kerosene lamplight. Can you believe that?” The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the EU Sustainable Energy For All Summit. Photo: Jan Stejskal

The Millennium Development Goals, set up in the year 2000 by world leaders to eradicate global poverty, failed to address one crucial issue – energy. To correct this error, politicians come up with a set of initiatives that promise to deliver sustainable energy to all people of our planet. A strong message to the international community was sent last week at the EU Sustainable Energy For All summit in Brussels. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the President of the European Commission (EC) José Manuel Barroso were the messengers.

Ban Ki-moon grew up without electricity in his native South Korea, which was devastated by the 1950-1953 war. “I was studying under kerosene lamplight. Can you believe that?” he said in his speech. “Now I’m standing in front of you like the Secretary General of the United Nations. It was only possible through industrialisation and economic development. Access to modern energy transformed my world and my country. We need such a transformation possible for all people around the world.”

“You cannot compete on the world market if you need several hours per day to collect firewood for cooking,” he added, referring to Africa and the big gender problem there in particular. Usually women and girls have to do domestic work such as preparing food and supplying water for the family. Sometimes they have to walk for 10 kilometres just to have water, which leaves no time for education.

So it’s not surprising that, probably having all this in mind, Barroso said: “Access to energy provides the progress or delay, in some cases even life or death.” He added that the EU has opted for a low carbon future and the efficient use of resources, none of which can be achieved without sustainable energy.

The President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso

“Access to energy provides the progress or delay, in some cases even life or death.” The President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso at the EU Sustainable Energy For All Summit. Photo: Jan Stejskal

The high level Summit in Brussels was aimed to back up the UN initiative to double the world’s use of renewable sources of energy and energy efficiency until 2030 – but at the same time to launch the EU’s initiative called Energising development, which will provide electricity to 500 million people (of 1,3 billion lacking it) by 2030. “These are huge opportunities for all, new markets, new partners, jobs,” Barroso said. However, the European Commission is facing many questions about the developing countries’ eligibility for assistance. Criticism is not very loudly answered with argument that Europe wouldn’t have so many problems with illegal immigration if there were decent jobs in developing countries, where access to energy is a crucial factor.

Andris Piebalgs, the European Commissioner for Development, said that EU’s development aid for the poorest countries is far from enough. “Four hundred million euros a year is not much, if compared to investments in banks or some other companies and industries’ rescuing, this is peanuts,” he admitted. “I really strive that aid reaches 0.7 percent of EU GDP, which we aim to set up in 2015.”

The Secretary General of the UN International Development Organisation (UNIDO) Kandeh K. Yumkella strongly believes that the third industrial revolution – or the path to sustainable energy society – will require more funds transferred to the poorest countries. According to him, investments should increase from today’s nine to 48 billion US dollars per year – but even then it would still represent only three per cent of all global investments in energy and only a fraction of subsidies for fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels are heavily subsidised despite the fact that energy production from them, their transport and use in households causes tens of millions of deaths and significant costs on healthcare. “If the EU reduces its greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants by 20 per cent until 2020, this would mean savings of €52 bn per year,” said Annika Ahtonen, analyst from the European Policy Centre. She added that energy and health are closely connected, thus damage to health should be included in energy price.

This is a key point: if all costs were included, fossil fuels would be so expensive that Europe would have no other option but to shift to cleaner transport, manufacturing and construction.

Additionally, if we made the right energy choices, we could prevent up to 13 million premature deaths per year. Currently, a quarter of all diseases are caused by environmental contamination, according to Maria Neira, director of the Department of Public Health and Environment at the World Health Organization (WHO). Polluted air is already the second or third main cause of disease in Europe – it is estimated that around two million people die from polluted air indoors, while many more develop serious chronic diseases.

Andris Piebalgs, the European Commissioner for Development

“Four hundred million euros (for development aid for the poorest countries) a year is not much, if compared to investments in banks or some other companies and industries’ rescuing, this is peanuts.” Andris Piebalgs, the European Commissioner for Development, at the EU Sustainable Energy For All Summit. Photo: Jan Stejskal

Large transmission lines or off-grid installations?

However bold the politicians’ words were at the Summit, offstage the debate focused on the best ways to provide sustainable energy for everyone. The majority of people without sufficient access to energy live in poor regions of Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa. Should we focus on off-grid installations in rural areas in these countries? Or should we promote industrialisation and large transmission nets? And, importantly, is access to energy really the only issue?

As Anne Owuer from a public company Kenya Power pointed out, there are areas with proper access to electricity, but the problem is the price. “It’s too expensive,” she said. “We all talk here about an access, but the problem is costs, costs and again costs.”

Other criticisms were raised, too. “I liked Ban Ki-moon’s speech because he emphasised we should focus on achieving energy access for the poorest,” said Tomáš Tožička, Czech campaigner for sustainable energy for all. However, he was disappointed about how much delegates concentrated on the private sector and providing electricity to industry. “If industry needs electricity, it can build its own power stations, with backing from the banks and other institutions. Within development aid we should talk only about achieving access to energy for the poorest people,” he said.

Many NGOs echoed his views. ”For developing countries it is impossible to go to rural areas and electrify them,” said Yves Maigne, director of the France-based Fondation Énergies pour le Monde (Energy for the World Foundation). “Politicians want to electrify a few villages and talk about it. But we need to find a way how to electrify clusters of small villages in certain time to reduce operational costs.” His organisation provides off-grid solutions for rural areas. “We must bear in mind that while in Europe urban and pre-urban areas are occupied by some 80 per cent of inhabitants, while the remaining 20 per cent live in countryside, in some parts of Africa the numbers are roughly the opposite.”

The renewable energy off-grid sector is a domain even for the international business organisation Alliance for Rural Electrification. Simon Rolland, its representative, drew attention to the fact that in many developing countries such expensive sources of energy were used that the renewables didn’t need subsidies to be competitive. “Yes, it’s cheaper to buy a generator instead of photovoltaic panels. But operational costs are then so high that in the long-term perspective the procurement of panels would be cheaper,” he explained. According to Rolland, oil subsidies in developing countries reach about $70bn per year.

Case Study: Ghana

Not everyone is convinced that mainly renewables are the future. “We tend to give the impression that renewable energy is the solution. I think it’s a myth,” said Abeeku Brew-Hammond, director of the Energy Center at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana. He added that at least 20 countries in Africa have oil or gas. “Renewable energy is not the answer, it’s one component that will make contribution but it’s by no means the main thing we all have to focus on.” Brew-Hammond believes that in many countries, oil and gas will play a far more important role than renewable energy.

The Secretary General of the UN International Development Organisation (UNIDO) Kandeh K. Yumkella

Investments in energy access should increase from today’s nine to 48 billion US dollars per year – but even then it would still represent only three per cent of all global investments in energy and only a fraction of subsidies for fossil fuels. The Secretary General of the UN International Development Organisation (UNIDO) Kandeh K. Yumkella at the EU Sustainable Energy For All Summit. Photo: Jan Stejskal

His words were contradicted by Pablo Leunda from the Development Directorate General of the European Commission. “The position of Ghana is really not the same as the position of Burkina Faso,” he said. While Ghana, situated on the coast, can easily import fossil fuels and has recently discovered oil and gas, Burkina Faso uses diesel and has to drive it from Ghana or Ivory Coast. “This makes production of energy in Burkina Faso very expensive and solar power can be almost competitive to the diesel generators they are using today,” Leunda said.

Brew-Hammond defended his position. “It seems to me that putting an extended grid from Ghana and Ivory Coast to Burkina Faso would enable them to get cheaper power as an option to get diesel. Because at the end of the day solar is still expensive,” he said. “Yes,” Leunda replied. “But you could have very easy situation when Burkina Faso is angry with its neighbours and neighbours cut the power supply to Burkina Faso. That’s why all countries are balancing between economic aspects and energetic sovereignty.” He added that because of this, in many regions solar energy is the right solution.

In Ghana, national electrification programme connected regional capitals to a high voltage transmission system and helped raise incomes not only in these regions, but also for communities along the transmission lines. That is partly the reason why Brew-Hammond supports the idea of building large transmission lines in West Africa. “Putting cheaper power in Mali or Niger can do a lot for economies of these countries. If they had reliable power in their country, it could contribute to their stability,” he said. “No question that a Tuareg in desert will need to carry his solar panel on his camel back. But this is not an answer when considering all resources that are available for the countries of the region. And this is not an answer for communities and towns that need power to run schools, hospitals and industries. Let’s keep all options on the table.”

However different the opinions were, on one issue both off-grid enthusiasts and large-grid-electrification proponents agreed: that is, that even the world’s poorest should pay their share in covering the costs of energy access. “People are not so poor that everything should be paid for them. Even the poorest are able to raise a small amount of money and contribute to improving of their lifes,” said Minyu Mugambi from the Somali branch of ADRA, a NGO which brought (with support from the EU) off-grid energy to a few rural areas of Somalia. He explained that in countries without proper governance, such as Somalia, people are used to develop ways that enable them to cover maintenance costs of their holdings: for example, small tax systems.

On the other hand, strong governance and consideration for national interests – which are not in destroying all natural habitats by extracting oil and other raw materials – is necessary when a developing country is dealing with the world’s political and economical superpowers. “These would take everything they can and give little or nothing in return,” said Abeeku Brew-Hammond from Ghana.

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About The Author(s)



Jan Stejskal

Jan Stejskal

Journalist, based in the Czech Republic

Journalist, currently an editor-in-chief of the Ekolist.cz - leading Czech on-line news, comments and features on environment and nature. As he has to illustrate his stories, he takes photos as well. Master degree in anthropology.


Borut Tavcar

Borut Tavcar

Journalist, editor

A 41 years old journalist, dealing with environmental issues for 20 years and energy related topics for four years. No time for many things but I try to give enough quality time to my two doughters. Last year I've got another engagement when I became an editor of Green Delo page in daily newspaper Delo.

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