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Standing on the heads of giants

….SE4ALL: A decade of innovation, opportunity and change

The paint is barely dry in the brand new Vienna HQ of the Sustainable Energy for All initiative. But, for CEO Kandeh Yumkella, there are more important things to think about than office fixtures and fittings. Heading his agenda is the US$600bn–US$800bn a year needed to finance the initiative’s three goals. Here, he talks exclusively to the Quarterly about the challenges ahead.

 By Audrey Haylins

With external walls made entirely of glass, SE4ALL’s new offices offer a panoramic vista across the River Danube to the skyline of downtown Vienna and westwards to the hills that form the eastern outpost of the Alps. It’s a view designed to inspire.  And few people are more in need of inspiration than Kandeh Yumkella.

Is he overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the task he’s been set? On the contrary, he affirms, with a defiant shake of his head. “More than anything, I am excited to have been given the opportunity to create something that did not exist before in the UN system.”

Indeed, he welcomes the fact that energy poverty has finally penetrated the global consciousness, after being left out of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000.

“As a topic, energy used to be a discussion breaker,” he explains. “The moment you put energy on the table, governments would take sides.

“What we’ve done in the past three years is change the narrative, by showing politicians that we are not talking about geopolitics, but about human development. Finally, we are comfortable talking about energy without fighting over it.”

With typical modesty, Yumkella pays tribute to the partners that have joined forces with SE4ALL to build a new global energy paradigm. Among them is OFID, which he acknowledges has played a “highly influential role” in pioneering energy for the poor, modifying the narrative and helping to design the SE4ALL Initiative.

Equally crucial is the involvement of the World Bank, which came on board the Initiative in 2013 and whose President Jim Yong Kim has united with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to lead the movement.

“I am standing on the shoulders of giants, who are ready for action,” Yumkella declares. “And I hope that my small effort will give them a solid institutional framework to work on the sustainable energy agenda over the next two decades.”

First-hand experience

As a native of Sierra Leone, Yumkella admits to having a strong emotional connection to energy poverty.

“For me, this is a real subject that I feel honored to work on. I know what energy poverty is,” he says, recalling his childhood and university years. “I know what it means to study by candlelight and to have no running water because there’s no diesel to work the pump.”

It is this personal experience that has prepared him well for the job at hand. That, and his eight years as Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.

“I am well aware of the social dimensions of energy poverty. I also know that, for economic development, job creation and wealth creation, an affordable, reliable energy supply is crucial,” he states, referring to studies which show that Africa loses two to three percent of its GDP due to a lack of energy.

 (Credit PHOTO: OFID/Abdullah Alipour Jeddi): Kandeh Yumkella, CEO of SE4ALL, is excited rather than daunted by the challenge of his new role.

(Credit PHOTO: OFID/Abdullah Alipour Jeddi): Kandeh Yumkella, CEO of SE4ALL, is excited rather than daunted by the challenge of his new role.

 

New energy paradigm

We are talking in Yumkella’s private office, which has a surprisingly lived-in air considering the short time it has been occupied. Artifacts from his many travels are scattered on every surface, alongside framed photographs, awards and other mementoes of an illustrious career.

He has just returned to Vienna following a hectic month that saw him traverse the globe, drumming up support for the cause. He’s been to three continents: North America, Asia and Africa.

There are no signs of fatigue, however, as he speaks animatedly of his plans―in particular, for the launch in January 2014 of the UN Decade of SE4ALL.

The kick-off event―at the Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi ―will serve as a springboard for activities to mobilize investment and support for the initiative. Regional launches will follow throughout the year.

Of the total estimated US$600bn–US$800bn needed to fund SE4ALL, Yumkella judges that the bulk by far will be required to improve energy efficiency in developed and emerging economies.

He is full of praise for energy-rich countries such as Brazil, Norway and Saudi Arabia, which have all taken an aggressive stance on renewables.

“Quite simply, it makes good economic sense,” he says. “It requires a lot of cash, but we prefer to look at it as an opportunity for economic growth and wealth creation. In fact, we’re calling it the Third Industrial Revolution.”

In comparison, the investment needed to achieve the first goal of universal access to modern energy services is a relatively modest US$50bn. This, Yumkella hastens to caution, will not make it easier to attain, due to the complexity of the challenge in the poorest countries.

“This is an investment-driven vision, not an aid-dependent one,” he asserts, alluding to the need for sweeping energy sector reform in developing countries.

“Energy infrastructure is like any other kind of investment. It requires an enabling environment, clear investment protection policies, incentives and regulations that give an investor confidence in the security of his investment. At the moment, these are lacking.”

This, he suggests, is where multilateral institutions like the World Bank and OFID, can make a difference. In demonstrating their willingness to assist a country―by putting money into a project or helping to devise a long-term energy strategy for example―they can reduce the risk factor and encourage investment from the private sector, including from large corporations and pension funds, which have the deepest pockets.

“We want to reduce energy poverty, but in a way that delivers social benefits and at the same time is both commercially viable and environmentally friendly. This is the complexity of Energy for All that keeps me awake,” says Yumkella.

Three pillar package

The SE4ALL chief is keen to point out the holistic nature of the initiative, which he describes as a “global transformation” of energy systems. “Our three targets―universal access, doubling energy efficiency and doubling the share of renewables―represent a narrative about changing the global energy mix, for rich countries as well as poor countries.”

He stresses, however, that the main message is “sustainability for all” and that each nation should address the target or targets that are relevant for its own energy security.

“The beauty of our narrative is that it encompasses access, efficiency and renewables as a package. None of them is separate. In every country, each of the pillars is relevant to some degree, but it is up to the country to decide which one is more important,” he reiterates.

For the developing countries in particular, there are strong linkages between all three goals. While access is the driver of poverty alleviation, for instance, renewables can very often provide the quickest solution.

“We mustn’t necessarily separate these two aspects,” Yumkella argues, pointing out that off-grid, or mini-grid solutions can be provided to a community in 12 to 18 months, while a dam can take up to seven years to complete.

With regard to efficiency, he cites data that shows some developing countries experience power losses of 20 to 30 percent due to inefficient generating and transmission systems. “This is another dimension that feeds into the overall picture and needs urgent attention,” he states.

Synergies for progress

Yumkella professes to being greatly encouraged by the global response to SE4ALL since its launch in late 2011. “Everybody wants to get involved,” he proclaims, revealing that their database so far includes around 1,500 NGOs, social entrepreneurs and civil society groups.

As a reflection of the cross-cutting nature of energy, many of these groups are involved in indirectly-related activities such as health, food and water.

“My biggest headache now is getting everyone to sing from the same hymn sheet!” says Yumkella, with mock exasperation. “The goodwill is there, but we need to get people to agree to work together to get a bigger bang for the buck. It’s all about collective actions for speed and scale-up.  As Mr Ban said: ‘Alone you can go fast; together we can go far.’”

Yumkella is hopeful that a large event planned for later in 2014 in New York will provide the perfect setting for improving synergies. Bringing together all stakeholders, the event will provide an opportunity for companies, NGOs, financial institutions and governments to showcase successful initiatives.

Already, some outstanding case studies are in evidence, including China, Brazil, Vietnam and South Africa for access; Denmark and Japan for efficiency; and Austria for renewables.

“We can see real signs of progress and hope in developing nations too,” says Yumkella, who speaks of Bhutan as a “dream country” for what it has achieved with regard to all three pillars of SE4ALL, “exclusively on the initiative of the government.”

Decade of SE4ALL

For the first year of the Decade of SE4ALL, Yumkella discloses that the main theme will be energy and women, in recognition of the severe burden energy poverty places on women and children.

“Women suffer the most; they are the ones providing the bulk of the energy,” he states, adding: “Clean cooking solutions alone could save four million lives every year.”

The 2014 rollout will therefore include a series of awareness campaigns “to make people realize that things can be done differently where women are concerned; that there are other ways to provide energy.”

He reveals that the first year of the Decade will also see some new targets being added to the Initiative. Like OFID’s medium-term strategic vision, the water-food-energy nexus features strongly, as does energy and economic empowerment.

“We are taking the [water-food-energy] nexus very seriously,” he says, disclosing that working groups have been set up to organize sets of indicators and targets for energy/water and energy/food.

“These new targets will help to keep the nexus message, which is something we are developing for eventual inclusion in the post-2015 agenda,” he adds.

Another priority for 2014 is to test certain business models in a select group of around 20 countries, the objective being to move from words to action.

“Everyone is committed, but now we need to show evidence of how things can work on the ground,” says Yumkella. “This is our mantra: to change commitments into kW-hours for real people.”

Also flagged for greater attention in 2014 is work on energy efficiency, particularly in buildings, transport and industry. “Our aim is to explore innovation in cities around the world and show how it can be copied and scaled up―even in Africa,” explains Yumkella.

He pauses and glances at his watch before making a final statement: “It’s not about complaining or showing the calamity that can happen. What we want to deliver―throughout the Decade―is a message of innovation, opportunity and change.”

And on that positive note, our interview draws to a close. Yumkella has another pressing engagement: an end-of-year social gathering with his staff.

As he delivers words of thanks and encouragement to his small team, my eyes are drawn to the stunning backdrop. Beyond the wall of glass, midwinter has brought an early dusk. In the growing darkness, thousands of lights cast a reassuring glow across the city. It is the perfect symbol of hope.

Yumkella need look no further for his inspiration.

 

SE4ALL joins Vienna Energy Club

The Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) Initiative has become the 10th member of the Vienna Energy Club. It was formally enrolled at the VEC’s 9th meeting on December 4, 2013.

The VEC now consists of 10 energy-related international organizations, all seated in Vienna: the Energy Community Secretariat, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, the International Peace Institute, OFID, OPEC, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and SE4ALL.

While these individual organizations vary in their core missions, size and focus, the shared aim of the Club is to provide a platform for discussion and to create awareness of energy-related issues bringing forward the sustainable energy agenda. The Club generally meets two to three times a year in Vienna.

The members of the VEC have promoted their host city Vienna to an international energy hub, putting energy on the global agenda and creating a better understanding of this important topic. Vienna plays a central role in the global energy community.

Article courtesy of the OFID Quarterly Jan 2014

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