How a green recovery from COVID-19 can solve the global energy access crisis

Electricity is a crucial commodity of the 21st century. Discovered hundreds of years ago, electricity is ingrained in every aspect of our lives – whether it is heating or cooling our homes, lighting office buildings, running public transport, or powering the systems needed to manufacture everyday products. Individuals like myself have become so dependent on electricity that we often fail to consider how much we rely on it or where it is sourced. Further, we have come to view electricity as a common, universal good.

However, that is not the case.

As of November 2020, over 800 million people around the globe do not have access to electricity. Three-quarters of these individuals live in Sub-Saharan Africa, and about half live in conflict-affected countries.

Known as the energy access crisis, this worldwide issue has been ongoing since the industrial revolution. With disproportionate access to natural resources and renewable energy, certain regions have struggled to produce any form of energy, whether it is electricity, gas, or liquid fuel. Exasperated by political and economic trends enforced by the world’s hegemon states, countries have struggled to adapt and implement their own policies and systems.

Applied to the current day, the International Energy Agency (IEA) defines energy access as “a household having reliable and affordable access to both clean cooking facilities and to electricity, which is enough to supply a basic bundle of energy services initially, and then an increasing level of electricity overtime to reach the regional average.”

Recognizing the lack of energy access across the globe, individuals, corporations, non-profits, and governments have dedicated resources to solving this issue. Namely, in 2015, the United Nations developed 17 Sustainable Development Goals to guide the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which has been adopted by all UN Member States. Goal 7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 7) aims to increase access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy. In turn, this will improve energy access across the globe.

Initiatives like SDG 7, along with progressive national policies, have already improved the global energy access crisis. Since 2013, countries such as Kenya, Senegal, Rwanda, and Ghana have decreased the number of people without electricity in their countries, by issuing aggressive policies that boost energy access and support off-grid initiatives.

While this trend has been improving over the past couple of years, it has worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic, as more and more individuals are without electricity.

In 2020, after nearly a year of facing the consequences of COVID-19, the number of those lacking electricity in Africa increased by 13 million people. With over 590 million people lacking electricity in Africa by 2020, this figure increased by 2% since 2019. Further, 30 million of these individuals were pushed back into energy poverty due to the ramifications of COVID-19.

Although it is expected that a worldwide health crisis like COVID-19 would affect government policies, the effect it has had across our world and on energy access is shocking. So why did the COVID-19 pandemic reverse the progress on energy access?

This question can be answered in one word: money.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a lack of funds for energy initiatives from the government, private sector, and individuals. Governments are in a state of emergency as they tackle the global health crisis, redirecting funds and allocating portions of other departmental budgets to healthcare. Private companies in the energy sector, especially those in renewable energy, have faced issues in their supply-chain management, paying a higher markup on goods which worsens their finances and sales as the higher prices pass onto the consumer. Further, individuals, like governments, are forced to prioritize other emergencies brought on by COVID-19, investing less in new energy systems.

As energy access decreases across the globe, individuals can no longer cook with clean energy. The IEA notes that individuals will turn to traditional fuels, which not only harm the environment as they release greenhouse gases, but also further harms health, gender, and socio-economic development. Beyond these issues, without access to electricity, the World Resource Institute acknowledges that refrigerators cannot safely store food or vaccines, hospitals cannot power medical devices, and schools cannot keep the lights on so children can learn.

While these realities are overwhelming, encouraging hopelessness for some, there is a solution: a green recovery from COVID-19.

Dr. Fatih Birol, the Executive Director of IEA, acknowledges that a green recovery from COVID-19 and increasing energy access across the globe go together. In a press release regarding the IEA’s sustainable recovery report, Birol notes, “Governments have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reboot their economies and bring a wave of new employment opportunities while accelerating the shift to a more resilient and cleaner energy future.”

Investments in green, renewable energy will better the ramifications of COVID-19, including the decrease in energy access, by providing affordable electricity throughout the globe. Whether it is shifting current electric grids to renewable energy or investing in solar mini-grids and other off-grid solutions, areas that face issues with energy access can profit from renewable energy.

Regions throughout Africa have a higher daily solar radiation than Europe, with the Sahel region providing two times the amount of solar radiation daily. Further, due to the scope of renewable energy, governments can invest in off-grid solar farms that provide energy access to rural, remote communities. Additionally, green energy solutions will create jobs within the region, boosting the country’s economic growth.

Francesco La Camera, the Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) agrees that renewable energy is the future for Africa, stating, “Renewable energy can cost-effectively supply the critical power needed in Africa’s rural communities to supply health centres, facilitate the provision of clean water, support agriculture and facilitate other productive sectors.” He further mentions “such measures are critical to the continent’s ability to deal with the pandemic.”

To recover from COVID-19, countries need to create innovative solutions that solve multiple world issues. Solutions, such as introducing renewable energy practices, both on and off-grid, will better the lives of millions of individuals while boosting several national economies.

As government restrictions ease across the globe, our society gets one step closer to entering the post-COVID-19 world. While we continue to adapt, we must implement inventive solutions that help the vulnerable. The Institute for Emerging Technologies & Social Impact (ITSI), an organization I launched earlier this year, believes that since the industrial revolution the geopolitics of energy has been a driving factor in global security and prosperity. This should not be the case, as electricity should be a common, universal good. Introducing renewable energy sources, and thus energy access, to remote regions of the world will break the ongoing cycle of energy poverty, encouraging sustainable economic development across the world.

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