As the world marks the beginning of the Decade of Action to deliver the objectives set in the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), strong commitments will be needed to accelerate the implementation of the 17 goals. One of these, SDG 7, which aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all has a strong bearing on other outcomes, as access to energy can improve healthcare, livelihoods, agricultural productivity, and other similar goals.
While progress has been made on energy access through the deployment of renewable energy technologies, including solar home systems and green mini-grids, resulting in the number of people living without electricity dropping to roughly 840 million from 1 billion in 2016 and 1.2 billion in 2010, a lot more needs to be done.
Tackling the pandemic with improved energy access
The Covid-19 pandemic has bluntly revealed the key role of SDG 7 within the 2030 Agenda especially in sub-Saharan Africa where only 28% of healthcare facilities benefit from reliable electricity. Off-grid solar photovoltaic (PV) power systems now present a key opportunity to provide clean, reliable, and cost-effective electricity to remote health facilities that would otherwise not have access to reliable electricity which is essential for powering cold chains to safely preserve and store vaccines, blood, and other critical medicines. In Zambia, First Aid Africa, a Scottish charity, and Renovagen, a UK renewable supplier, have deployed a clean energy portable solar system in Mbereshi Mission Hospital, Luapula province, to speed up Covid-19 testing and reduce wastage of valuable reagents.
“Whether the driving factor for urgency is a global pandemic, a natural disaster, or population displacement, there will continue to be many scenarios where self-sustaining power is required at sites that are difficult to access. Often, the provision of that power without reliance on fuel for generators can be life-saving,” said John Hingley, Renovagen managing director.
According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, at least 300,000 people could lose their lives as a direct result of COVID-19, and push nearly 30 million into poverty— significantly setting back any progress realized in recent years. Small photovoltaic power plants with a battery can be quickly deployed and provide an estimated need of less than 5kW of power for 24 hours per hospital bed.
As former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated, “energy is the golden thread that connects economic growth, social equity, and environmental sustainability.” New modular and scalable off-grid power technologies are opening up possibilities for individuals to climb out of persistent poverty by making small investments in energy products and services. From job creation to rural economic development, from security concerns to the full empowerment of women, off-grid energy access has emerged as a critical solution to poverty reduction and a critical enabler of development. According to a 2019 census data, a potential of 4.5 million off-grid, renewable energy, direct jobs could be created globally by 2030, which would account for more than one-sixth of the global renewable energy workforce, estimated to be 24 million by 2030.
Improving lives and livelihoods
DRE technologies like solar-powered water pumps and other productive use appliances offer exceptional value for improving the living conditions and capabilities of households, access to energy is also a means to achieve the principle “Leave no one behind”. For instance, women around the world spend an average of about 200 million hours per day manually collecting water for household use. Innovations in solar-powered water pumps are alleviating the time spent by women and girls collecting water, resulting in more girls enrolling in school and women pursuing endeavors such as community gardens to improve nutrition and provide additional income.
A new social contract
Now more than ever, the clock is ticking for a New Social Contract with SDG 7 at its core. The speed of deployment for access to electricity solutions will be critical for the coming decade.
The SDGs are a powerful call to action on the multifaceted task of eradicating poverty, fighting inequality, and tackling climate change. It will not be possible to complete this task without establishing universal energy access, which is vital to creating gender equality, providing educational opportunities, and stimulating economic development. Accelerating the deployment of decentralized renewable energy can drive energy solutions that are more in line with people’s needs.
As we set out to commemorate the 75th-anniversary of the UN, we must acknowledge the role of energy as the backbone of a better quality of life for remote communities facing a variety of disadvantages. We can no longer ignore our responsibility to provide the supportive resources off-grid communities need to not only meet their current minimum energy needs but to plan for plenty.