United Nations High Level Group/Private Sector Forum on Sustainable Energy for All

Ed note. This is a guest post from Amanda Warren, Business Development Associate, E+Co

United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon has declared 2012 to be the Year of Sustainable Energy for All. Under his leadership last week, 20 leaders from global business and finance, government and civil society traveled from five continents to assemble for a common goal: create a cohesive, action-based strategy to achieve universal, sustainable energy access by the year 2030.

I observed the meetings as a ‘Sherpa’ for Christine Eibs Singer, the CEO of E+Co, a mission-driven investment company that invests services and capital in clean energy entrepreneurs in developing countries. I was struck to see such diverse interest and commitment in a cause that has been E+Co’s focus for almost two decades. It was a great couple of days for E+Co to showcase its 17 years of experience in bottom-up enterprise solutions to sustainable energy access and learn about the different approaches other groups have taken towards accomplishing this same goal.

In his introduction, Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon described his personal commitment to this urgent and compelling cause. Over 2 billion people currently live without access to safe and clean sources of energy. They are literally living in the dark, relying on unsustainable, dirty fuel to cook their food and light their homes. The “energy-poor” are trapped in cyclical poverty that hinders their ability to enter the workforce and ravages their health by exposing them to toxic fumes.

The panel quickly agreed to focus primarily on energy access.  Achieving this goal would be instrumental in mitigating climate change and combating third-world poverty. Mr. Fatih Birol of the International Energy Agency estimated that success requires $48 billion of annual global investment – an ambitious, but not impossible goal that requires coordinated action from governments, the private sector, NGOs and local communities. As I looked around the room, I saw an impressive mix of representatives from these sectors, each of whom could draw on his or her unique experiences, colleagues, and resources to mobilize clean energy access. The diversity of the group, especially the strong presence of the private sector, signaled the possibility of cooperation and success.

Though the panel was ostensibly gathered in pursuit of a common goal, the discussions were intense and not without conflict. Determined  to avoid allowing this panel to fall into a dangerous ‘all talk, no action’ paradigm, some members asked pointed questions on how this written report will be converted into real, concrete action that ensures accountability.

Frequent thought-provoking questions came up throughout the discussion. How can we most effectively utilize the knowledge and resources of this panel to end energy poverty – Is it through a top-down, policy-driven approach that creates favorable market conditions for energy access? How can we provide energy access solutions that stimulate deep economic growth? How do we scale up community-based models with proven success, like the ones in E+Co’s portfolio, with finance and capacity building to reach a greater magnitude of people? Is an integrated approach of both models necessary? Is it possible? How do we account for the unique socio-cultural, political, and economic climates of individual nations?

According to the IEA, we are already spending $9.1 billion annually on energy access. What are we learning from how this money is being spent? Can we use it more effectively?

In the coming months, the principals of the high level group will gather in small task forces in order to generate a Global Action Agenda containing concrete steps for cross-sector action. The Year of Sustainable Energy for All will launch at the 2012 World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, where last year, E+Co was named runner-up for the Zayed Future Energy Prize.

Having been with E+Co for just two weeks, these meetings were a thrilling and eye-opening introduction to the cause of clean energy access for me. I was honored to take part in the panel and am excited about the great potential of this initiative. What a way to start a new job!