Energy access: An essential piece of the resilience puzzle

By Sarah Frankel | 7 April 2017

With more than 1 billion people living without modern, reliable electricity, deepening the energy access and resilience nexus is one of the most pressing challenges of this decade.

Zilient explored this challenge during a recent live online discussion with EarthSpark International President Allison Archambault, Lais Lona, business development lead for Africa with SunFunder, and Clare Shakya, director of the climate change group at the International Institute for Environment and Development. You can listen to their discussion here:

Here are three key takeaways from the event:

#1: Energy is absolutely necessary for resilience but not sufficient

Archambault made this point when sharing EarthSpark’s experience with its microgrid in Les Anglais, a town in southern Haiti that was hit by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. In terms of local people’s ability to find out about the hurricane and prepare for it, access to electricity was critical, she said. There was a higher death toll, for example, for people in the mountains beyond the reach of the microgrid. But in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, emergency relief supplies and other infrastructure were more important than energy.

Shakya also touched on this theme, referring to a study that found energy was a “foundational investment” but other things must also be in place to build resilience. One way to think about energy is as a gateway to other services and opportunities,” she said, citing as an example the use of mobile phones to access weather information and agricultural market prices.

#2: Demonstrating the energy access-resilience link is key

All of the panelists touched on the importance of advancing efforts – through both practice and data collection – to prove the link between energy access and resilience. Showing that a renewable energy access initiative can actually be done, and be successful in building resilience goes a long way toward gaining government support, getting investors involved, and expanding future research and development efforts.

Archambault noted that the best way to encourage supportive policy frameworks is to show policymakers what’s possible, emphasizing this point with EarthSpark’s tagline, “de-risking by doing.”

Money is important, she added, “but models are critical.” “Let’s build the tools and templates to make the models that can be investable,” she told the webinar, which reflected discussions at the April 3-5 Sustainable Energy for ALL Forum in New York.

Lona agreed, highlighting the importance of proof of concept when trying to convince investors to put money into solar energy initiatives. To this end, he urged collecting data around customer experiences for use with investors.

Shakya noted there are a lot of one-off studies on the link between energy access and resilience, but not enough longitudinal studies that gather results over a period of time. IIED is trying to fix that by working with partners in Kenya and Malawi to conduct such studies on a small scale.

#3: Collaboration will be critical

The three panelists agreed the world has a long way to go in achieving energy access for all – a global goal with a deadline of 2030 – but noted we’re at a critical moment. They highlighted collaboration as an essential ingredient, particularly when it comes to working with domestic partners.

“We must find ways to collaborate with local financial institutions,” said Lona. ”They know the market better than we do.”

Shakya talked about creating multi-stakeholder processes, emphasizing the importance of engaging private investors, given the current geopolitical environment and lack of funding going to the poorest countries. She raised the issue of how public finance can be used most effectively in a way that doesn’t disrupt private investment.

Archambault advocated an increased focus on market linkages, and the things people can do when electricity arrives. EarthSpark hopes to build 80 microgrids in Haiti over the next five years – but admitted everything would have to line up right for that to happen.

Lona concluded that while the world is lagging behind on energy access targets, there are possibilities and solutions for getting on track to achieve them. Four basic needs for this are to create enabling environments, increase access to finance, boost awareness, and provide technical and support services, he said.

This article first appeared on zilient.org, an online platform building a global network of people interested in resilience, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation.

Featured image taken by Rebecca Janes in Haiti, courtesy of Flickr user Inter-American Foundation.