A 'green revolution' built on efficiency

susie wheeldon

It's been almost one year since ‘universal energy access’ became part of the global mission to ensure sustainable development by 2030. Power for All spoke with clean energy visionary and founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) Michael Leibreich (pictured), who looks ahead to 2020 and gives his three predictions for the future of decentralized renewable energy, including an energy efficiency revolution on the back of ultra-efficient appliances.  First, the predictions:

1.      Very rapid takeup of highly distributed systems: the extraordinary growth of markets for solar home systems, lights and phone chargers is set to continue. The economics of these systems ‘make sense’ for consumers, with payment system innovation—for example, where customers pay in instalments for products—enabling millions of low-income families to access energy services. Payment plans are also having a positive impact on financial inclusion. Mobile enabled systems are linking many people to financial services for the very first time, and will begin to open up markets for financial products, insurance products and far more.

2.      More very low energy appliances: the huge growth in the solar lighting market has been made possible in part due to the availability of low-energy LED bulbs. ‘It is only because of the very low-powered light bulbs that you can get away with a very small and cheap solar panel,’ explains Liebreich. What’s more, innovation in efficiency is gathering pace across the sector: ‘Coming down the track are very low energy fans, very low energy fridges, very low energy television sets, very low energy sewing machines and so on’.

3.      Growth of ‘micro-utilities’: Mini-grids which can be used to power a village or community will be the next big breakthrough, able to power telecom towers, clinics, some extractive industries, food processing, schools and more--as well as homes. The technical solutions to renewable community scale power have been known for many years, but how to make a mini-grid work economically has long remained a critical question. ‘The answer is to think of it as a utility,’ advises Liebreich. The focus on payment plans, credit control, service, maintenance and demand will lead to a new wave of micro-utilities that form the backbone of energy access.

Energy efficiency: the new green revolution

Expanding on the second of these trends, the chairman of the advisory board of BNEF highlighted the potential for a full-scale efficiency revolution in the wider electronics market. Noting the breakthroughs that have come out of the Global LEAP programme—a competition for manufacturers to create very low energy appliances—Liebreich noted that as people in low energy use environments become wealthier, they will want increasing levels of energy services, including cooling from fans, refrigerators and air conditioning units. ‘In order to forestall this huge demand in energy, Global LEAP is trying to ensure there is a supply chain and models of very low power appliances, and the low powers that they are achieving are just phenomenal,’ he explained.

Making a link between the urgent need to increase agricultural productivity in the 1970s to cope with the growing population and avoid widespread famine, and the huge advances needed now to ensure that higher levels of energy services can be provided to a still growing population whilst avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, Liebreich highlighted his belief that the shift to low power appliances is ‘structurally as important in the energy space as the Green Revolution was in the agriculture space’. Dramatic breakthroughs in energy efficiency will not only bring huge benefits for energy access, but prove fundamental to protecting the future of our global environment. ‘If we can shift not just the developing world but the developed world to very low energy appliances, and address the absurd waste of energy in our buildings… therein lies the solution to the climate problem.’

Susie Wheeldon is Senior Communications Manager at Power for All, a global campaign to accelerate the market-based growth of decentralized renewable energy as the key to achieving universal energy access 

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