Why Should Climate Philanthropy Care About Energy Access?

Investing in clean energy access provides a disruptive opportunity to revolutionize electricity systems and get on the right side of the politics of development — philanthropy just hasn’t realized it yet.
To be fair, philanthropy needs to step up it’s game on climate across the board. Our investment is woeful — only 2 percent of all philanthropic funds are devoted to transitioning to a clean energy economy and staving off the worst impacts of climate. That’s why some big name foundations are calling on their colleagues to step up giving, and act on climate.
But it’s not just the sheer dollars that matter – it’s also how we spend them. While we have a lot of work to do to be more strategic one of our most glaring blindspots is energy access. To turn that around someone needs to take the time to make the case that spending scarce climate dollars on energy access will drive transformational change. So let me give it a try.

Clean Energy Access Gets the Politics Right
For the more politically oriented amongst us let’s be overt – the politics of climate at the global level are broken and they contaminate everything. We need to proactively seek opportunities to change those politics by aligning development and climate goals in an explicit way. Supporting the entrepreneurs working to bring poor rural communities their first energy services from clean energy sources like solar home systems and mini-grids aligns renewable energy with development. It means our solutions to climate are also the solutions to poverty alleviation, not the obstacle it’s historically been. With exciting new research from the World Bank suggesting that distributed solar is also driving financial inclusion we have the opportunity to invest in an intervention that has cascading development benefits. All of which reframes our issue in a powerful way: the world’s most advanced technology — clean, distributed smart grids — are the most appropriate for the world’s poor. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi understands this, that’s why he promised solar, not coal, for all by 2019.

Clean Energy Access Is Disruptive
In the 21st century where mobile phones are ubiquituous no rural villager demands, or expects, land line telephones. What’s more, those villagers will increasingly demand access to more sophisticated communications services like the internet via their mobile devices. But they struggle to keep their phones charged thanks to a lack of power which is causing Telecom companies and their counterparts in the tech industry from Silicon Valley, giants like Facebook and Google, to lead the drive to electrify the poor. That constituency realizes the only way to quickly and cheaply power those devices is not to wait for the centralized dumb grid — it’s to quickly and nimbly deploy smart distributed generation. More importantly, the companies leading this charge are doing it with a potent mixture of mobile money financed distributed clean energy solutions, super efficiency, and innovative pay-as-you-go business models that deliver energy as a service. Ultimately, that creates a clean distributed smart grid that serves the poor first, not last. Meanwhile the rest of us deal with our 19th century dumb grids and their entrenched dinosaurs who fend off the future by trying to tax the sun while they fight for the right to continue to pollute our air and water.#

Clean Energy Access is Mitigation
You’ll notice that the direct mitigation piece of this puzzle comes last. That’s because the politics and disruptive potential of these interventions are the real selling point. But that’s not to say there aren’t tons of C02 to be mitigated. Far from it. Take India where 75 GW of Diesel gen sets are installed which form the ‘distributed reliability backbone’ to the notoriously unreliable grid. That total is equivalent to half the country’s coal fleet which is being added to at an incredible clip of 17 GW this year alone. A consumption whose giant sucking sound evaporates the country’s foreign reserves and decimates the rupee’s value. 
But while diesel replacement is big, the far more interesting opportunity lies in the super efficient appliances necessary to wring services out of pico solar and their rebound effect for the developed world. No, not that rebound effect — I’m talking about a positive effect that makes super efficient TVs (7 watts in off grid settings) the norm across the globe thanks to the sheer purchasing power that 1.2 billion consumers wield. Just imagine the US congress trying to justify appliance standards that are weaker than those in Bangladesh and you get the sense of the disruptive impact super efficiency could have on global appliance markets.
All said and done there is quite a case to be made for clean energy access. But outside the admirable efforts of the Rockefeller Foundation or the newly announced super efficient appliances work supported by Climate Works this issue still largely remains under the radar. It’s high time we seized this opportunity and asserted a vision of the future that puts the needs of the poor first – by building a clean energy future from the bottom up.

Justin Guay leads the Beyond Coal to Clean Energy work for the Sierra Club’s International Climate Program and is based in San Francisco. 



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