A few years ago in the pages of EJ we met Christine Lins, Executive Secretary of REN21, now Executive Director of GWNET.
Christine Lins was appointed as Executive Secretary of REN21, the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, in July 2011. Christine Lins came to REN21 from the European Renewable Energy Council, the united voice of Europe’s renewable energy industry, where she served as SecretaryGeneral for 10 years from 2001 - 2011. REN21 is a global public-private multistakeholder network on renewable energy regrouping international organizations, governments, industry associations, science and academia as well as NGOs working in the field of renewable energy. REN21's Secreteriat is based at the UN Environment Programme in Paris/France.
Ms. Lins, despite progress achieved, today 620 million Africans remain without access to electric energy. Unprecedented demographic growth across the region means that unlesswe quickly improve the rate of electrification, by 2030 that figure will increase by an additional 45 milion, for a total of 665 milion Africans without access. Will we be able to beat the clock on this?
Christine Lins: Today roughly 16% of the world’s population lives without electricity. That’s about 1.9 billion people, most of whom live in Africa, and given current trends the progress toward providing universal access remains low. The world is committed to energy access for all, and I would say that technology is available. Renewables are making progress; investments in off-grid solar PV continued to grow in 2015. Companies operating in this market have increased revenues to 223 million USD per year, an increase of about 40% over the preceding year. So there’s progress and new business models. It’s clear, however, that the current policy is not enough for us to achieve our energy access goals. We need
to accelerate. That’s the key.
For industrialized countries, overcoming the phase of fossil fuel-driven centralized energy production remains anything but simple. Practices and approaches we’ve employed in the past are still holding us back. Paradoxically, delays in development accumulated by African countries have placed Africa in a potentially advantageous position for important opportunities: they can organize their own
native electricity systems directly around renewable resources, betting on things like distributed generation, smart grids, integrating on-grid and off-grid systems… Basically taking full advantage of technological innovation’s potential in order to move toward sustainable development. What would be the best way to build an energy-technology blend for this kind of challenge?
CL: I think we need adequate planning. Often countries don’t agree on whether electrification should be provided centrally throught a central grid, or decentralized. I think it's clear that relying on centralized generation is very difficult. It has considerable costs, and will take too long. What is needed is a smart mix
of technologies. On the renewables side you have hydro, biomass, biogas, solar… There are a number of good, viable options being rolled out. I think it’s very important that Africa has this opportunity to leapfrog industrialized countries; to avoid investing in dirty fossil fuel infrastructures that would need to be decarbonized the way they are being dealt with in industrialized nations. The African continent can switch to sustainable technology right from the start… I also think it is extremely important that this is done in truly coordinated manner, creating local companies and local jobs. This will only happen if there is a clear governmental strategy for the market rollout of technologies. A good example is the initial design of the South Africa Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Program. The South African government has set clear targets for how much renewable electricity they will procure in a given time period. If the level of procurement is high enough, this will create a local industry and jobs. The program is also interesting because it introduced some social measures (black empowerment) that benefit local communities. So we have a lot of different models available, not in South Africa but in other countries too. Morocco, for example, is another place where we’re seeing best practices: the Moroccan government decided to create a one-stop shop company – Masen – that acts as a central player committed to facilitating renewable energy deployment. Their goal is not only to take advantage of the full potential of renewable energy, but to create economic opportunities and strong development in the market.
Given the magnitude of the challenge, a solution would require a joint effort involving African countries and international public and private parties. China has invested heavily in largescale electricity projects, while the US has put in place a comprehensive initiative – Power Africa - to scale-up electrification. European states have, instead, created a myriad of fragmented initiatives to promote electrification. More coordinated interventions, including by the European Union, might guarantee greater efficiency and consolidate the role of EU plays within the geopolitical framework. In your opinion, what is keeping the European Union from getting involved in Africa in a more direct and important manner?
CL: I wouldn’t necessarily underestimate Europe’s contribution. There are different Africa-Europe energy partnership initiatives, and the European Member States are involved in Africa just as individual countries. Naturally there may be some inefficiences due to the fragmented nature of this approach. In some ways this is a historical issue: some European countries enjoy closer relationships with African countries due to their experiences during the colonial period, and therefore tend to invest in those areas. For example that’s the case for Italy and Ethiopia.
What role did African countries play in the most recent edition of COP?
CL: We had two intense weeks in Bonn. COP23 was all about effectively trying to define rules on how to implement th Paris agreement; how to make some of the commitments more ambitious… I think there is still a lot left to do. One of the first results of COP23 was that the number of countries formally committed to fighting climate change rose to 197. Now that Syria has signed the accords, the United States remains the only country in the world that refuses to ratify the Paris Agreement. Countries all around the world are strongly in favor of finding a solution, and the world has acknowledged that climate change is a reality.
For Africa, I think what matters most is financing, as well as the fact that countries are staying on track to replenish the green climate fund. We need to see more commitments and progress.