Understanding the East African energy transition-Dispatches from SEF4EA

Blog by Maimuna Kabatesi, March 20, 2018

Day 1

“We’re at a point where there is much to be excited about – we’re at a point where the energy future is going to look very different to the past.” – Rachel Kyte, CEO, Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL)

There was a lot of good news from the first day of the Sustainable Energy Forum for East Africa yesterday. After a long wait, the East Africa Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (EACREE) announced that it was now fully operational. As an energy practitioner working on policy, I am particularly excited about what this could mean for regional harmonization when it comes to the policy and regulatory framework for energy. But more than that, to have this very important stakeholder demonstrate their commitment leaves me with a sense of optimism for the future of energy access in East Africa.

More good news from Kigali, Rwanda where the Forum is taking place from 19-21 March: United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and the International Solar Alliance (ISA) signed an agreement to support EACREEE in the implementation of sustainable energy solutions. Other high level institutions -the Africa Development Bank (AfDB), International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), SEforALL, UNIDO -also pledged their support to EACREEE.

Yet more good news – there was an entire panel on clean fuels and technologies for cooking! If you are wondering why this is good news – usually a subconscious bias exists where we think of energy access as access to electricity and thus cooking is pretty much ignored. But yesterday there was a robust panel where it was stressed that we need to move beyond thinking of clean cooking as just cook-stoves. We need to think of clean fuels at affordable prices. Technology in this space needs to be invested in. Basically, clean cooking matters.

Challenges

Every government representative on a panel spoke about their commitment to achieve 100 per cent electrification before 2030 – the Sustainable Development Goal 7 (Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all) target. Rwanda is aiming for 2024, and Kenya for 2020. However in the middle of wave after wave of good news, reality rears its head again and again. Challenges are here today and will impede our drive for energy access for all unless we tackle them head on. Financing is key to overcoming this. At the moment, not enough money is going to the energy sector. And a very tiny proportion of those already small funds are going to decentralized energy access; an even smaller amount to clean cooking solutions. East African governments need to walk the talk when it comes to allocating finance for energy from their budgets. Domestic commercial banks have to build their capacity to understand the potential of Renewable Energy (RE). Right now banks are classifying RE projects as risky due to a lack of understanding of the different financing needs, leaving project developers to look outwards for financing. Development partners themselves need to allocate more funding to renewable energy, particularly decentralized energy options and clean cooking technology and fuel research and development.

We need to think more about data. Not just data when beginning a project, but data after projects are completed. Without monitoring, evaluating and benchmarking our projects and progress – we will not be able to share what works, to learn from others’ experiences and to innovate bankable solutions that can work on a regional level.

Re-thinking policies

Our policy and regulations need to be strengthened and reinforced at national and regional level to promote growth. One of the initiatives that was interesting to hear about is how the Government of Rwanda made a change to their policy when it comes to micro-grids thus providing electricity faster for citizens. Now, projects below 50kw do not need to procure the required licenses before making electricity available to communities situated far from the grid. They only need to inform the regulator before embarking on such a project. Similarly, their tariffs do not need to be reviewed by the government as it is assumed the low purchasing power of consumers will limit the maximum tariff. This solution has been a success, simultaneously increasing electricity access for citizens, eliminating regulatory hurdles for developers and reducing bureaucratic demand of the regulator. Just one of the ideas I hope other governments will be able to adopt in order to hasten access to citizens in their own countries.

East Africa is probably one of the most exciting regions when it comes to renewable energy right now. And if we are conscious of our policy and regulatory framework, of our financing choices and of which citizens are at risk of being left behind, we will be able to achieve a transition that leaves no one behind while remaining clean, affordable and accessible.