Debate on energy access takes off in the corridors of COP17

9th Dec 2011
Aleksandra Tomczak, European Specialist

As we approach the last hours of this year’s climate change negotiations, informal bilateral and multilateral meetings multiply until early morning hours.

At the same time many interesting side events are taking place and provide a good forum for the WCA to engage with the UN, the World Bank and businesses on issues such as energy access and the expected role of coal, along with other fuels and technologies, in providing alleviating energy poverty.

Yesterday, the UN Foundation organised a session on “Cleaner and more affordable energy access”. It brought together representatives from the Norwegian Government and the Global Network for Energy and Sustainable Development, as well as academics from universities in Zambia and Ghana. During question time WCA presented the IEA’s statistics on the expected role of coal in delivering electricity access in energy poor areas. I asked the panellists if their initiatives would support coal projects in developing countries, knowing that their assistance could facilitate cleaner use of coal, in more efficient power plants. Most panellists seemed not to know that coal was expected to play any role in the electrification challenge and most had nothing to say about the use of coal for electricity access. The Norwegian representative of the Energy-Plus initiative said that financing coal projects was controversial and for this reason his fund would say no to any coal projects. He also questioned the credentials of the Medupi power plant on the grounds that international donors were not happy with controversial projects.

A similar event was organised earlier by the International Chamber of Commerce and the Global Electricity Initiative. Representatives from Schneider Electric and the Global Sustainable Electricity Partnership shared their experience and recommendations on the role of renewables in the energy access challenge. Vincent Mazauric from Schneider Electric also pointed out that there is a problem of low reliability when renewables account for a significant share of the grid, especially in isolated areas. This event had a much more balanced panel of experts and also included representatives from ESKOM. In fact the utility’s representative, Erica Johnson, showed that the company’s electrification programme in South Africa focused on building two coal and one hydro power plants. With this programme ESKOM has managed to achieve the rate of one additional grid connection every 30 seconds!

Having side events on energy access is a useful way of reminding delegates and observers at COP17 that as we address the climate change challenge we have to remember that 1.3 billion people still have no access to electricity. For the WCA these events are an opportunity to remind the international community working on energy access issues that coal is part of the solution and to encourage them to be pragmatic and consider sustainable use of coal in energy poor areas as part of their funding strategies. Hopefully, WCA statements will encourage some experts to look at their statistics again and make sure they can help cleaner use of coal in energy poor areas through their energy access funding strategies.