Lifting the curtain of darkness that surrounds world populations that have no access to energy was never among the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals for eradicating poverty.
But Richenda Van Leeuwen, the U.N. Foundation's new point woman on energy poverty, said leaders widely recognize the impossibility of achieving universal primary school education, reducing child mortality or other development targets without access to electricity.
To that end, the United Nations has called for universal access to modern energy services by 2030. At the same time, it has challenged the world to reduce energy intensity of 40 percent by that same year. If those two goals are met, the United Nations calculates, global emissions will increase by only 1.3 percent.
Van Leeuwen's job is to help the United Nations expand access to modern energy for the 1.5 billion people who don't have it -- and do so in a way that doesn't cause the world's greenhouse gas emissions to skyrocket. She believes it's a goal the world can reach.
"There are so many new solutions that didn't exist even five or 10 years ago," Van Leeuwen said. Noting the progress the world has made in other areas, like toward the eradication of polio, she said, "You can really focus like a laser beam on a particular problem. It's a question of political will."
An alliance for clean cookstoves
Over the next several months, Van Leeuwen will be working on a series of U.N. initiatives, including a new Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves that will launch today. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will announce the group's formation in New York as part of the Clinton Global Initiative.
The aim is to find cleaner alternatives for the roughly 3 billion people whom U.S. EPA estimate cook their food and heat their homes by burning coal, wood, animal dung or other materials over open flames or rudimentary stoves -- leading to serious health problems and potent contributions to global climate change in the form of black soot.
Also today, the International Energy Agency is expected to issue an early excerpt of its World Energy Outlook that specifically examines challenges of energy access. According to the IEA, about 2.7 billion people -- about 40 percent of the global population -- still rely on the traditional use of biomass for cooking.
"Lack of access to modern energy services is a serious hindrance to economic and social development and must be overcome if the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are to be achieved," the IEA contends. "Worse, without additional dedicated policies the problem will persist and even deepen in the longer term."
The larger role that clean energy may play in addressing energy challenges is still unclear. Increasingly, though, countries do seem to be turning to decentralized renewable energy. That was evident at a recent meeting of the Africa-E.U. Partnership, where leaders maintained that scaling up sustainable and renewable energy needs to be integrated into development policies.
Small-scale solar growing fast
Van Leeuwen comes to the United Nations' advocacy arm from Good Energies Inc., where she served as a senior adviser to the private global renewable energy investment firm. There, she worked around the world on energy access in areas where commercial approaches were simply not possible.
She argues that that poverty itself is not an ultimate barrier to modern cooking appliances, streetlights that keep neighborhoods safe and well-lit, or the ability to refrigerate medicines in the local hospital or study into the night at one's home. There are ways, she said, to reach even the very poor with small-scale energy solutions that match their cash flow and monthly outlays on energy products and services.
"Everybody uses energy. It's just a question of whether you're using modern energy services or not," Van Leeuwen said. And, in fact, an energy market also exists even in the poorest of communities.
"It's just tied into kerosene, it's tied into candles," she said, noting families might pay as much as $5 or $10 for those rudimentary materials -- not far off the price of some small-scale solar options.
She describes the challenge of bringing clean energy to those who currently have none in three categories: grid extension, an area where private investment has been slower because of a perceived lower rate of return but where major institutions like the World Bank are helping; mini-grid systems, which have shown promise at the local village level, but also have high capital costs; and off-grid distributed generation, which Van Leeuwen said has undergone a "sea change" in the past decade in both affordability and quality.
Companies like D.light and others, she said, are producing and distributing 2-watt solar-panel lanterns using LED lighting that last anywhere between four and 12 hours -- and also allow users to charge cell phones. For communities still using kerosene lighting, she said, such small-scale distribution "is not saying people shouldn't have access to the grid, but in the meantime, there is a quick win."
Electrifying the world while keeping emissions low is no small job, and Van Leeuwen noted that the global investment in conventional energy makes the goal even more challenging. But she said she is confident that major changes are on the horizon. She said her hope for small-scale solar infrastructure is that it can become partially commoditized, thereby possibly achieving scale and reaching more people lacking energy access.
Said Van Leeuwen, "I'd hope we could do for cookstoves and small-scale solar what happened with cell phones."