Shortly after I moved to Tanzania in the mid-2000s to manage a youth health project, the country experienced a major power supply disruption. Every day for nine months, power was cut for 10 or more hours. The few privileged foreigners (my family included) and well-off Tanzanian households and companies would fire up their diesel-powered generators to keep their lights on and businesses running at substantial cost, producing clouds of black exhaust.
That first-hand experience transformed my understanding of socio-economic development: Without access to reliable, affordable electricity—to keep health clinic equipment running, to light schools and roads, to power irrigation pumps, to charge mobile phones and run radios and fans—the health and other development goals we supported would be impossible to reach. Today, some 600 million people across sub-Saharan Africa still lack access to electricity, as do another 150 million elsewhere.
Lack of energy and unpredictable fossil-fuel power have imposed a tremendous burden on development. Yet, Tanzania, like most tropical countries, is rich with largely untapped renewable energy resources such as solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal sources.
Climate Change Threatens Development
Since my time in Tanzania two decades ago, the increasing frequency and severity of droughts, heatwaves, and flooding around the world have brought to life the growing threat of climate change, driven by burning fossilized stores of energy. This energy fueled the Industrial Age and created vast wealth in the Global North, but at the cost of degrading the global climate.
The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report notes that we have very little time to decarbonize human activity to avert the worst impacts of climate change. Notably, those impacts disproportionately affect the countries in the Global South, which have done the least to contribute to the situation.
Renewable Energy for a Just Energy Transition?
These increasingly urgent climate warnings come as many countries in the Global South are experiencing rapid economic growth, which is lifting millions out of poverty and requiring ever-increasing supplies of energy.
Where does this situation leave the hundreds of millions of people in low-resource countries, who have the same aspirations for health, well-being, and prosperity as those of us who have benefited from 150 years of fossil-fueled development?
How are we to balance the imperatives of atmospheric physics, global environmental health, and the need to transition to a cleaner energy system with the justice and equity issues of the Global South’s much-needed socio-economic development?
Combating Climate Change with Renewable Energy – Stop Burning, Start Electrifying
Conceptually, limiting and eventually reversing the damage that climate change imposes across the globe is simple: First, we need to stop burning things, the behavior that has created the climate crisis we now face. Second, we need to electrify everything, which is the single largest path by which countries can decarbonize their economies.
Generating electricity from renewable sources is substantially more efficient than from fossil fuels. And the carbon footprint of every electric device will decrease as more electricity is generated by renewables. Transitioning existing fossil-fueled machines to electric would cut energy demand in half, and high-income countries could decarbonize approximately 70% of their economies via electrification.
The past two decades have seen dramatic declines in the cost of solar, wind, and storage technology. In fact, in many cases clean energy is now the cheapest form of new energy generation, though up-front costs often exceed those of fossil fuel generators. These clean energy cost trends provide less-developed countries an opportunity to leapfrog over dirty, damaging, more energy-intensive fossil-fueled development to a cleaner, more secure energy system based primarily on renewable energy generation.
This urgently required clean energy transition will enable countries to accelerate their development goals—from health and air quality; to food security, green jobs, and livelihoods; to water and sanitation; to energy security—and meet their decarbonization commitments.
Driving the Renewable Energy Transition
The increasing affordability of renewables has resulted in them dominating new energy generation. But to accelerate efforts to stop burning things and electrify everything at the pace needed to mitigate climate change, while driving development and a just energy transition, requires more than favorable economics.
Governments, utilities, businesses, and communities need to better understand the possibilities and benefits that renewable energy offers and how to manage the challenges of transitioning to a renewables-dominant system. Political will is needed to develop and implement policies and regulations that promote renewable energy and retire the dirtiest fossil fuel generators as quickly as possible. Trillions of dollars of financing are needed for new clean energy infrastructure, both on and off the grid. Public or blended financing options that reduce companies’ risk can attract private capital to profitable, climate-friendly energy projects.
Renewable Energy: An Opportunity Multiplier
Because of its increasingly disruptive effects, many energy security analysts consider climate change a “threat multiplier” as climate impacts, such as migration and competition over land due to drought, flooding, and crop failures, increase the risk of conflict.
Renewable technologies, in contrast, act as an opportunity multiplier, fueling a future in which development and climate mitigation go hand-in-hand.
My experience in Tanzania all those years ago shifted the trajectory of my career to focusing on addressing energy poverty. Today, at RTI, I am fortunate to work with talented colleagues to advance the renewable energy transition. Through USAID-supported programs and self-funded research, we are advancing energy transitions and development in 60 low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South and East Asia, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe. We advise and support governments on energy policies and regulations, work with utilities to modernize their operations and improve their financial viability, help private energy service companies attract investment, and introduce innovative energy technologies. Through this work, RTI contributes to a more just energy transition – one that will support the clean energy solutions needed for a thriving, more prosperous tomorrow for all.