Make No Small Plans: Turning On The Lights For 1.4 Billion People

by Ron Pernick, via Clean Edge

At the recent Fortune Brainstorm Green conference which I attended in Laguna Niguel, California, there was a host of U.S.-focused presentations and conversations. The ongoing themes and dialogue provided significant insights into the current state of affairs in the U.S. clean-tech market, including:

  • What will happen to the wind power market if the federal production tax credit isn’t extended before the end of the year? (Answer: It will likely crater to near zero in 2013 after strong deployment in recent years.)
  • What does low-cost natural gas mean to the future of the renewables industry?(Answer: It could have a very significant impact, but renewable portfolio standards in dozens of states, along with utility and regulatory desire for a diverse energy portfolio, should help soften the blow.)
  • How will social media and Internet-enabled businesses drive clean-tech growth?(Answer: A large number of companies, from Sunrun to Recyclebank to large corporates, are effectively using the web, apps, and social media to acquire and communicate with customers).

But, for me, it was an international theme that really grabbed my attention. While the U.S. is currently mired in pre-election clean-tech bashing and partisan shenanigans, it was a simple, straightforward, high-impact presentation by Michael Elliott, president and CEO of the poverty-alleviation-focused nonprofit ONE (, that turned my head. In a packed room, he asked us to imagine living after dark in one of the many places in the developing world without access to electricity (the daily reality for about 1.4 billion people globally). Then, he literally turned off the lights. No video, no music, nothing…and then he kept talking, and said this is what it would be like living in the tens of thousands of villages, favelas, and other outposts that have no, or limited, electricity.

“So just think for a second,” Elliott said in the blackened hotel conference room, “what you, with all your dreams, your brainpower, those synapses firing off, how your life would have been different if you had to cope with the fact that around six or seven [every] evening your life went dark. And I’ll tell you what, it wouldn’t have been easy.”

With the lights back on, he then outlined a program, spearheaded by the United Nations and supported by business, foundations, governments, and nonprofits like his, that could help to change the equation. The goals of the program, named Sustainable Energy for All, are both simple and aggressive. By 2030:

  • Ensure universal access to modern energy services. (95 percent of the people without access to modern energy live in sub-Saharan Africa or developing Asia.)
  • Double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency. (Investing in energy efficiency is a low-cost method of creating jobs, fostering economic growth, and improving energy security, especially for countries that lack domestic fossil-fuel resources.)
  • Double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. (Increase energy from renewable resources—wind, water, the sun, biomass and geothermal — from 15 percent of the global energy mix to 30 percent.

At the same event, I had the chance to sit down with Aimée Christensen, special advisor to the U.N. Secretary-General’s high-level group on Sustainable Energy for All, to talk more about the goals set forth by the U.N. The aim of the program, she said, was to act as a platform. Similar to the Clinton Global Initiative, where Christensen has served as an advisor since its inception, Sustainable Energy for All isn’t just about raising capital, but about actual firm commitments to action, such as increasing a company’s use of renewables or the efficiency of its supply chain, launching new public-finance mechanisms to de-risk private investments in sustainable energy projects and businesses, and building capacity to accelerate household- and village-scale energy deployment in impoverished communities. The plan is for Sustainable Energy for All to provide an online database of all commitments, and then to track them over time to ensure transparency and fulfillment.

As I think about it more, perhaps the goals aren’t so audacious after all. The mission set forth, while grand, seems achievable. And the call to action is at once both motivational and grounded. We face significant ecological, economic, and social challenges of historic proportions on a global scale, and need to have realistic “stretch” goals. I think Sustainable Energy for All might just be the mantra/meme many of us are looking for.

Of course, any tectonic shift like this will require deep political, organizational, and individual will – along with significant financial resources. While most of us have ubiquitous access to the tools and appliances that bring near-constant light, comfort, and communications into our lives, there are more than 1 billion people around the world that go into darkness every night, and 2 billion or so that are mired in unhealthy, primitive energy systems (the burning of charcoal and cow dung, for example). That needs to change, and the Sustainable Energy for All program and challenge is, in my estimation, right on target. Nothing less than clean, reliable energy for those at the base of the pyramid, along with increased renewables and efficiency targets in both the developed and developing world (the 30 percent goal by 2030 seems imminently doable, if not passable), should be a guiding vision for our collective future.

Ron Pernick, co-founder and managing director of Clean Edge, is an accomplished market research, publishing, and business development entrepreneur with more than two decades of high-tech experience. This piece was originally published at Clean Edge and was reprinted with permission.

6 Responses to Make No Small Plans: Turning On The Lights For 1.4 Billion People

  1. fj says:

    Yes, bottom up technology transfer is and will be very effective achieving the long overdue transition in energy, transportation, communications, and etc. with simple here and now technologies listed below.

    Energy: solar photovoltaic & thermal, micro & smart grids, LEDs, very efficient design, human power

    Transportation: bikes, electric bikes, highly accessible safe and improved infrastructures, highly modular small vehicles, and etc.

    Communications: cell phones and wireless technologies

  2. fj says:

    Poor people first is a very good strategy for dealing with climate change and considering the Durban agreement where the developed world is giving the developing world $100 billion per year to deal with climate change by 2020; giving it right now could be equivalent to significant factors more considering the Stern Report, etc.

    One hundred billion per year eight years from now could be equivalent to two to three times $100 billion ($300 billion) if those equivalent resources were allocated right now; may be a lot more with other less obvious externalities and whole systems considerations.

  3. Leif says:

    With over 200 years of capitalism firmly invested in the ability for individuals to profit from the pollution of the commons, western man can see no monetary value in the bottom up economy. Never has, and voluntarily, never will. Terrorism is labeled “non-traditional warfare, and it is attempted to be “won” with somewhat “traditional” weapons, because that is what we know. “Shock and Awe?” Didn’t work! Terrorism will take non-traditional weapons to “win.” Green technology properly deployed and justly administered can show the poorest of the poor that we in the west can do good and have value. With rapacious capitalism and bastardized “Democracy” our Nation’s current only export, is it any surprise that even the enlightened in our ranks are revolting against our efforts. Democracy is meaningless without democratic results and capitalism is not currently programed to do that, even within our own Nation. That remains a chore for “We the People”… However win that war and our “status quo” “Capitalism” will look a lot different and new looses, think fossil, will surface. So “Winning” is open to interpretation and there in lies the problem. We could use a little help Mr. President.

  4. Quentin says:

    This isn’t aggressive, it is pathetic.

    “The goals of the program, named Sustainable Energy for All, are both simple and aggressive. By 2030:
    • ….
    • – Double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency….
    • – Double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. (Increase energy from renewable resources—wind, water, the sun, biomass and geothermal — from 15 percent of the global energy mix to 30 percent.”

    This doesn’t seem to be anywhere *near* aggressive enough.
    The website states : Between 1990 and 2006 [16 years], increased energy efficiency in the manufacturing sectors of 21 member countries of the International Energy Agency resulted in a 21% reduction of energy use per unit of output.”
    Absent data on non-manufacturing sectors, if this rate of improvement continued to today and was then “doubled” then (depending on your interpretation of doubling rates of change) we might expect a 42% reduction in the 16 years from today (2012 to 2028) with this rate then constant. VERY approximately (rates of change can be tricky) we would arrive at 2030 with at best twice the output per unit of energy. However we actually expect to arrive at 2030 consuming three times globally what we consume today, according to many estimates. The efficiency improvement alone still leaves things getting much worse – the energy requirement is still 50% higher than today.

    If we only double the share of renewables from 15% to 30% then instead of 85% of today’s output being fossil based, in 2030 we have 70% of 150% = 105% of today’s energy use fossil fuel based.
    In other words emissions have INCREASED if we only do what is stated above.

    The math is very approximate but the point will hold even with large changes in assumptions – what they are aiming for is not enough and the little it does is far too slow.

    As the Hartwell Paper points out – by 2050 if energy consumption (not product consumption) triples and emissions are to halve then carbon intensity of energy production has to drop by 87%. If energy demand only doubles by 2050 then we have to drop carbon intensity by….75% globally – basically the same thing.

    Thank you for your attention, and I apologize if I misunderstood.

  5. Mark Shapiro says:

    If a small PV panel, battery, LED light, and cell phone charger costs $50, then the poorest one billion families could have high-value, clean power for a one-time cost of $50 billion.

    $50 billion. One time. Clean power for half the world.

  6. fj says:

    Absolutely; and perhaps they’ll start appearing on the radar screen for lots of other stuff which could be a major two-way advantage.