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Repurposing the COVID-19 Response for SDG 7

On May 21, 2015, Power for All was launched on the global stage at the United Nations, with a commitment to inject urgency into the pursuit of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7. In those days, leaders in the  energy sector regularly downplayed the potential of the decentralized renewable energy (DRE) to end energy poverty; some even referred to solar home systems as “toys.” Today, our community is invited to the G20 and asked to advise multilateral development banks; even the International Energy Agency (IEA) has bolstered DRE in its World Energy Outlook. By mobilizing collective action—on employment, food security, integrated electrification, healthcare—the 300-plus coalition of Power for All partners have pushed for our “seat at the table” and earned a permanent place for decentralized renewables in the global energy supply.

After a decade of incredible momentum, “The Great Pause” of COVID-19 has forced many of us to delay projects, question our strategies and re-evaluate our business models. Some even feel the DRE sector is facing an existential crisis. Indeed, with millions who fought their way out of extreme poverty likely to backslide into destitution, it's easy to see why our sector—one of the great enablers for ending energy poverty—might question our raision d’etre. The coronavirus has laid bare the limits of “business as usual” in every industry, in every country around the world. Our “Decade of Action” to achieve SDG7 is off to a rocky start.

Yet when the global order fails, opportunity is everywhere. Many countries in the Global South have mobilized an impressive response to the pandemic, far outshining nations like the U.S. and the U.K. In what could be the most important turning point in this millenium, COVID-19 has demonstrated in sharp relief the inequities that emerge in a world without the Goals—and how leadership can emerge from anywhere. Who would have thought that in the span of a few weeks, billions of people would respond to a call for a new Global Goal:  #StayHomeSaveLives? Through a series of innovative partnerships, corporate adaptations, political will, and personal commitment, communities around the world have shown that we can mobilize the kind of international response needed to defeat a global threat—or achieve Global Goals like SDG 7.

Our Decade of Action begins now. In our “woke,” post-COVID-19 existence, there is  little room for business as usual or time to pine  for “normal.” To leverage this once-in-a-lifetime pivot to get SDG 7 on track,  we need to reignite urgency on access. Immediately, we must provide a coherent vision about how distributed clean energy can fit into national plans to improve resiliency and prepare for the next pandemic. In the next 3-6  months, it will be particularly critical for our sector to develop a shared vision, and action plan and renew our push to accelerate universal access while supporting global economic recovery. This includes:

  • Resilience Standards: While there are no well-known global standards for power sector readiness and pandemics, the DRE sector can establish and lead this discussion, perhaps collaborating on indicators that bodies like W.H.O can endorse, that specify a role for DRE.

  • Dividends of DRE: DRE can provide an antidote to lockdowns and natural disasters by helping with connectivity and learning while reducing food insecurity and improving health care. Developing this case for COVID task forces, health ministries and planning departments as countries are prioritizing use of relief funds can get sector growth back on track.

  • Beyond Access: Expanding our narrative to emphasize a world beyond “just” access-- where everyone is empowered to enjoy the benefits that come with access to clean, affordable, reliable energy--will help build energy literacy, create consumers, and ultimately grow energy use. And, of course, create more resilient communities.

Recovery will be the focus of governments and aid agencies for much of the next 2 years. To be sure, the DRE sector will not go untouched by the coronavirus; we will see consolidations, streamlining, and even some bankruptcies in public, private and nonprofit organizations alike. For those of us who persevere, it's more important than ever that we move forward together, as a Community of Action. Power for All is eager to help develop a shared vision for our shared role in a post-COVID world, a coherent action plan to support national resilience and collaborative action to drive home our ability to deliver economic development beyond access. With this prescription, there is reason to believe that in 2025 we will be reflecting from an age when economies are stronger, lives are empowered and more people have access to energy than ever before. And, our DRE sector is once again thriving and driving to #EndEnergyPovertyFaster.

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