#34: Energy access in Africa and beyond



Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO, Sustainable Energy for All and co-chair, UN-Energy



We are hoping that models like what Rockefeller is trying to do with the larger blended finance initiative is going to kick off because we also need the scale, Rob. It’s not like money hasn’t gone into these sectors. We know of many programs, but it’s so segregated and it’s so small. We can’t keep talking about giving power to thousands of people. We have to be talking about giving power to millions of people. 

Damilola Ogunbiyi: My name is Damilola Ogunbiyi. I am the CEO and the UN Special Representative on Sustainable Energy for All. I also co-chair UN-Energy at the United Nations.

Robert Stoner: Welcome, Damilola. It’s great to see you again and to hear your voice. I remember that you and I met on the shores of Lake Como several years ago at the invitation of The Rockefeller Foundation, to begin thinking about how to end energy poverty. That’s led to a program that you and I are both involved with now that continues to be sponsored by the Rockefellers. Maybe we can come back to talk about that. But let’s talk about SEforALL. Part of the UN organization that you now lead, having come from directing the rural energy agency in Nigeria. Tell us about SEforALL and what you’re trying to do there.

DO: One of the key parts of SEforALL is to raise the ambition on what we see as energy. There’s a lot of talk on climate change and we don’t feel like people make the links on the importance of energy as it relates to the climate challenge. The other part of it is the energy is critical as it relates to humanity and people living prosperous lives. It’s important for us to have the energy access conversation in the energy transition conversation and not have these separate ways to do things.

One of the key roles is, firstly, highlight the importance of energy, then look for new, innovative solutions on how you actually get to the point of actually ending energy poverty. That’s why I’m really happy to be one of the commissioners in the group that you chair, in terms of moving the needle forward. We’re at a critical time now in the world, especially with the Covid crisis. We know there’s about 150 million people that are going to go back into extreme poverty, and we know one of the key barriers is energy. Even with the vaccines and the cold chains, we know that the distribution cannot be equal around the world because of the energy demand.

For my role in SEforALL, using data, using influence, using the whole UN system, and obviously people like you who are kindly accepted the role as energy champions in this global environment, emphasizing the effort and making sure that the countries know that they have to help out other countries and key countries also have to transition.

RS: It’s a really challenging issue, though. This business of talking about access at the same time as the transition. In other words, moving toward renewables, because we’re talking about poor countries, generally, that have low access. I sometimes find it very difficult to try to make a convincing argument that they should adopt technologies that many would say are more expensive; solar, or wind, or storage technologies that make renewables possible, or renewable energy possible. How do you think about that and is it a problem?

DO: Of course it’s a challenge. Again, it goes back to the data. As you know, because MIT does a lot, when you have a proper integrated energy plan that actually factors in what is the least cost of doing things and looks at what the transition will be from now to 2050, it’s easier to explain. Explaining energy transition to a country like mine in Nigeria is completely different to explaining it to Denmark. The way we communicate things are important. The understanding that while we are transitioning, there might be some transitionary fuels we have to do along the way. We might not be able to go from coal straight to renewable. That also needs to be considered.

I think what is drawing it back is that, with all the studies and information that we have, there’s only a few studies that look at the country-specific issues. In those issues, you have to take into consideration industrialization, getting people out of poverty, healthcare. All those things have to be tied in. It’s not just an energy conversation.

That’s what I want to get across to people. We can still achieve these net-zero targets by 2050 if we all work together and understand the nuances of each environment, and obviously have the funding to back it up. Because like you said, it’s very hard to speak to the poorest countries who are like, “Yes, we want to recover better. We want to recover green,” but then say, “But where do we get the funding and the financing for?” There are all these different buckets that have to come together unless it’s not joined up and, frankly, you just lose momentum.

RS: Where do they get the funding? These countries are trying to build energy systems, they’ve got a lot of other things to build. You’re not a bank. What other players are you bringing into the discussion to get money to flow into these countries so that they can build out these energy systems?

DO: The big players have to be in the conversation. Obviously the DFIs [development finance institutions], the MDBs [multilateral development banks], and big philanthropy as well. We are hoping that models like what Rockefeller is trying to do with the larger blended finance initiative is going to kick off because we also need the scale, Rob. It’s not like money hasn’t gone into these sectors. We know of many programs, but it’s so segregated and it’s so small. We can’t keep talking about giving power to thousands of people. We have to be talking about giving power to millions of people.

When you start doing millions of people, then the commercial scale comes in. Then you get different players and different models that you can introduce that you can’t introduce now because everything is so small, so minute, even for very large countries. I don’t believe the energy access problem is 100% a subsidy problem, I don’t think so. In my country, we’ve identified mini-grids that are commercially viable that don’t need subsidies. But you can only do that with scale. You can only do that when you can show customers that there’s a place to put your mini-grid plant or whatever that can take 50,000 customers, not 50 customers.

The data does really, really underpin things and investing in the data, the institutions, the policy frameworks to really drive growth and drive private sector wanting to come in and more commercial plants, more pension funds. Things like that is what I think that we are best designed to do. Because a lot of people don’t want to fund things like that. It’s not a good use of money because they don’t know if they’re going to eventually do the projects.

Regardless, we know that if we get really good information on data and commercially how it would work and we create projects and opportunities for private sector to come in, it doesn’t only help the private sector, but it also helps the government plan. The data that we did in Nigeria helped the Ministry of Health, helped the Ministry of Agriculture. It is a whole-of-government approach, and energy is one of the few things that the entire government has to be involved in making sure it’s a success.

RS: Let’s stay on Nigeria for a minute because I know that your experience with the rural energy agency there really informs a lot of your current thinking. You had some successes. You mentioned just now microgrids. Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa. A lot of really, really rich people but just a terrible access rate. I mean, you’re far from complete in rural areas especially, but even in some areas around the big cities. Tell us about this program that you developed with microgrids, and how it works and how it doesn’t get overwhelmed with subsidies over time.

DO: That’s a really interesting program, and I’m really, really glad to have been given the opportunity to do that. Nigeria is the largest country with an access program. There are 85 million people who don’t have access to electricity, which is a vast amount of people, and they’re not all in the rural areas. Even the mandate of the Rural Electrification Agency went beyond and started moving into the peri-urban and then places that the grid did not connect to.

One of the things I wanted to make very, very key is that I’m not advocating a country like Nigeria should only do microgrids and solar home systems. Not at all. What we did is we did develop a very robust energy plan, which shows the customers that should be connected to the grid, the customers that should be off-grid, and the customers that might only need solar home systems, understanding their needs. That was the first thing.

We presented that to the World Bank and the AFDB [African Development Bank], and we started a two-year process of what is now known as the Nigerian electrification process. I believe the reason why that program has worked is that the way the subsidy is designed as a results-based subsidy has changed the game. You cannot get the subsidy unless you connect the customer. I know that sounds a bit weird but that’s not how it happens with a lot of programs. A lot of hefty programs have years and years in procurement. You subsidize everything and then you look at the per-kilowatt cost, and you’re like, “What was the point in doing that?”

The other thing we were trying to do was drive down the cost on tariffs. You can’t keep charging the most vulnerable people $1 kilowatt-hour and then wonder why they can’t pay. It was very, very important to us. Using those models, we also realized that there’s some areas that don’t need subsidy. There’s some big markets and stuff, so don’t give them subsidy.

Again, it seems controversial but you don’t just give everyone subsidy. It’s the people who need subsidy. Then you also have to encourage and form relationships with the distribution companies as well, because their last-mile could also be microgrids and things like that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be connection to the grid. Although, connection to the grid and reinforcing the grid and making sure this goes out viable, which is a real problem in Africa, is still very key.

That program has been working now for the last couple of years. Really, really proud of what’s it’s been able to achieve. Nigeria has now gone on in its post-Covid plans to say they want to have five million dedicated connections to solar. Again, that’s huge. That’s 25 million people that would be connected to green power.

Nobody said it can’t be grid-connected renewables. That’s another thing that people like to narrow it down, but we have to plan on exactly how it works and how it’s sustainable. I think just learning from different countries and the way people have done things, especially for countries like India as well, is going to be critical to the success of the African energy infra-sector.

RS: You’re using these terms I find very heartening: data, planning, optimal, least cost. They’re kind of unfamiliar in these circles, or have been all too unfamiliar over the years where there’s a lot of ad hoc kind of work and far less quantification. I know that you’re a real fan of data and developing data and using it to try to get optimal outcome. You talked about finding people who need subsidies and subsidizing them and not subsidizing others. How do you that in a country like Nigeria? It’s big, it’s hard to get around, a lot of people living in very rural areas. Then by extension, how do you do that everywhere? How do you do it throughout Africa?

DO: I think one of the key things—and you know me well, Rob—is to realize the power of data in convincing policymakers and change-makers and also convincing the private sector to come into the sector. Nigeria had 29 different integrated energy plans before I took over. None of them take into consideration people off-grid or people in the most vulnerable areas. It was already controversial trying to do another one. Then again, the data work. The data work that you can have pretty much 50% or 60% of the population on-grid. That’s fine and we should improve the grid systems to do that, but the large amount that you can have off-grid, and over your 25-year cycle, you can see that they’re able to do it.

Why this is so critical is because when a lot of people who are funding these big programs and funding these things don’t tell you is that you’re not going to get the money if you don’t show them the data to prove it, and you don’t show them the institutional frameworks you’ve put in place. Once you have the data, it’s very easy to say we need a mini-grid regulation. After mini-grid regulation, we need all these supporting documents, we need to sort out how we do it with our enabling environment, how we do it in our parts, but it all starts from the opportunity the data shows.

I think this energy access problem is actually a great opportunity and that’s the way I’ve always, always been able to deal with it. Once people start seeing people connected, once implementation starts happening, it changes things. It changes people’s point of view. If you think about it, you came to Nigeria two years ago. Could you imagine a country like Nigeria putting in their economic development plan five million solar connection and where we’re moving oil and gas subsidy? I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime, but it’s happened because people have seen that it can be successful. There’s still a lot of issues, there’s still a lot of things to do, but it’s important to get a hold of those successes and really, really run with them.

RS: You’re really talking about bringing people along and showing them success and using that to encourage other people to get on board and building momentum in these national scale programs, which I see is tremendously hard to do. You did it in Nigeria. You were working within the government. Not an easy thing to do.

We’ve been talking in the context of this Global Commission to End Energy Poverty that we’re involved with—where we’re trying to work everywhere eventually—about the same issue, and try to do it in many countries at the same time. As I tried to develop a strategy for doing that, in discussion with many other wonderful people, the challenge of finding those strong people in government who will champion the cause that you can work with and you know who are going to be there for a long time is really right up front. You must be encountering that also in your work with SEforALL. How do you go about doing it? Engaging lots of leaders at the same time and getting them to move in the direction you want?

DO: First, the key thing is to identify the key person. A lot of people think you have to speak to the president or the prime minister first. The truth is, you don’t. In Nigeria, it was me. It’s still the same NDREA right now. In Kenya, it’s probably the principal secretary. In other countries, I can name a list of real champions. In terms of not knowing what could happen politically the day after, you have the same problems in the global north right? People chop and change all the time. You’ll be working with one minister of climate, then he changes to somewhere else. I think governance is about accepting things are not predictable and trying as much to work with the institution.

In Nigeria, it was great because we set up basically a project management unit, which was funded by the World Bank, so it didn’t really matter who came into government. It was already funded. You’ve met some of my team. Just some of the most brilliant Nigerian minds all coming together to solve a problem. Then at least I was relatively younger and so were they, they were all in late 20s then. Again, I think there’s a big push in terms of investing in capacity, investing in young people. They will be there for you—do you see what I mean?—later on, instead of just focusing on these big institutions, these big ministries that can’t change.

I always say that when I am looking to any of these countries to engage there, what is your implementing agency? Who is the key person there? Because that is very, very critical. Because the ministries are really policy places. They’re not meant to be doing implementation. I know some of them do and I know you need that kind of guidance, but if you can work with an implementing agency and you’re on the same page, it makes life a lot easier. They tend to continue a lot longer than ministers do as well.

RS: Yes, you find the professionals in there. Do you find that with Covid, there’s more interest among people in government in getting access programs going and building out energy and infrastructure? In other words, is Covid helping you, or is it a distraction that’s just taking those people away and focusing them on other things?

DO: There are two different ways. Covid is helping in terms of countries are… they need funds, they want to recover better and they want to recover better in a sustainable way, so that’s a huge help. Now, it’s kind of, “Okay, what can we do to really help?” We’ve talking about this for so long and that’s where the challenge is because a lot of countries that used to fund organizations like SEforALL and stuff, they’re looking at their national budget, they have been hit quite badly, and they’re not thinking of, “Okay, let me pour money in energy access to help another country.” Do you see what I mean? It’s quite sad that we’re getting to a point where countries are like, “Yeah, come and help us,” and you might not be able to help. That’s something I’ve found particularly difficult in this role. There are ways around it that we’re looking at just to keep the momentum going.

RS: That’s developed-country governments?

DO: Exactly, yeah. I feel this year would be a critical year. I do think that with the high-level dialogue on energy at the UN, which is the first time in 40 years, at least my lifetime that it’s going to hold and with also the COP thing, it would allow different governments to come together and understand just how important this is. I think what Covid has showed us is that we’re all connected. You just can’t solve a Covid problem in the U.S. if you haven’t solved it in Senegal. Something is going to link at some point.

I’m just really excited about the year ahead, and hope that we can have bigger, bolder commitments that we can track the day after the high-level dialogue. It’s not just about an event. It’s about trackable task and events and real numbers that we’re trying to get through, through the energy compacts. Just to give you a little bit about the energy compact…

RS: Yes, what’s an energy compact?

DO: Energy-specific, kind of voluntary agreements that tie in to access, transition, finance, the relationship with SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals]. Sorry, energy and the other SDGs. It could be health, it could be gender, but we want countries to sign up to say, “This is what we’re going to do from now to 2050.”

RS: It sounds a little bit like these nationally determined commitments.

DO: Yes, it is, but it goes into a specific detail on energy. What we’ve found is that a lot of countries don’t even have energy in the NDCs. Which, again, we’re encouraging, but let’s be honest, if we’re trying to get Morocco or South Africa out of coal by a certain time, that’s not going to be written exactly how they’re going to do that in an NDC. It’s kind of supporting the NDC and supporting the UN system. More importantly, these are the things you are committing to.

Give an example. A few years ago, Shell announced they were going to power 100 million people. I’m not sure if you recall that. Has anyone ever gone back to Shell? “How many people have you done?” We would love them to now commit to an energy compact so we can track them. If you make these announcements, you should be held up to it. That’s just an example.

RS: This is something the Clinton Global Initiative did. Bill Clinton did a very nice job through the CGI, this Clinton Global Initiative, that they ran for many years, of bringing together people who were willing to make public pledges. What they were going to do either as governments or NGOs or as funders. The trick was to try to get them to both make commitments at the same time so that someone would fund something, but they used a lovely website to track their progress and sort of used.

DO: Exactly. That’s exactly what we want to do, where we’re going is you have to be allowed to be publicly tracked as well. We are not shying away. Institutions that are involved at the high-level dialogue, like the World Bank, they are going to have their own compacts as well. It’s to try and just tie people into these things. I think that’s a role of the UN, to put pressure on global institutions to do what they say they’re going to do. If everyone did what they said they were going to do, it would be a lot easier, and for us to help where there are any bottlenecks.

RS: A compact, though, was a two-sided thing. Right, fine. You’ve got governments making commitments to do all these things and agreeing to be publicly shamed if they don’t. What do they get in exchange? What can you bring to the table as SEforALL?

DO: We’re also hoping that they would get some technical assistance, and it will also help with countries that people prioritize. I can come to you, Rob, and say, “Okay, well, Rwanda just signed this compact. This is what they want to get done. Can we help them in terms of a commission, plan A, B, C, and D?” Do you know what I mean? We can go to other parties to say, “Look, they’ve shown they’re committed in writing to start off with.” That’s what we really want to bring to the table. Approach the World Bank, IFC [International Finance Corporation], and say, “Look, how do we come together as a community to make sure that these guys have signed up to this, that we can support them?” Especially, for the developing countries.

RS: Count us in as MIT, and also as half the convening team of the Global Commission. We would love to do that. I’m looking forward to developing the idea further with you and being part of it.

DO: Okay, great.

RS: Is there a message for the Biden administration in all this?

DO: Yes, you need to join. You need to join. Really excited about the plans for the Biden administration, really excited to talk to them. They say they have some strong plans in terms of access in Africa. Between you and me, we have the blueprint of everything people should or should not do, but more importantly, just financing is needed. Financing and technical assistance is needed so much more, even in this year. Really hoping they can come together on a high-level dialogue, in terms of the investment and financing angle, and look at how we’re going to do the access, the energy transition.

Also, looking internally, in terms of the U.S. power systems. Because that’s another thing. We dictate all these things to countries in the global south, which they feel are a bit hypocritical because there are countries in the global north that are still using some of these energy systems of the past. We need to be careful about that balance, but I’m really excited about, hopefully, their net-zero pledge and how they’re going to take a real leadership position in all of this.

RS: You remind me that SEforALL has a global mission here. We’re not just talking about Nigeria, or Africa, or even the developing world. You’ve got access targets to hit. Yes, those are predominantly in developing countries, but you’ve also got energy efficiency and renewable energy targets. How do you divide your effort here as SEforALL? Are you lecturing governments in Europe and North America, or working with them in some coordinated way? What’s the kind of engagement you have there?

DO: I mean, definitely. I’m really lucky to be part of the UN system. I get to engage with the member states quite regularly and it’s on all the issues. If you’ve seen what we’re trying to do with the high-level dialogue, we have an access part, but we have a transition part as well. The transition part is probably even a bit larger than the access part. Just to show that we’re not letting anybody off. We’re not just saying, “Africa do this,” or, “South Asia do this,” without saying, “Okay, Denmark, UK,” or whatever, “What are you going to do to show the way forward?” Just because of the whole UN system with climates as well, there’s a big backing there.

It’s definitely global because people talk to me. They seem to just talk about access first, which I’m fine with, because I think it’s so important. I think it’s also very important in the climate discussion as well. I don’t think those two can be separated. I think there needs to be a very firm discussion on how Africa energy grows and how it affects the rest of the world, and the other way around in terms of climate.

Yes, it’s an exciting time. Lots of people to meet, lots of people to discuss with, but I think what I find I’m excited about is just the full, inclusive nature of everything moving forward. We’re not focusing on certain countries dictating to other countries. We’re like, can everyone get on the table and explain to them their unique differences. As you know, Rob. In Africa, Nigeria is completely different to most of the other countries, so I can’t use Nigeria as a template for Africa.

I’m also using this to learn. How do we deal with SIDS [small island development states] and LDCs [least developed countries] and the most vulnerable countries as well? There’s a lot to take in, but, yes, we have to do it and it’s a really exciting time.

RS: You’re dealing with all kinds of governments all around the world in your first year. I guess you must be very close to being at your first anniversary right now of running at SEforALL. Most of that was spent with your interlocutor in the United States. Probably not that engaged, maybe not your favorite interlocutor, but perhaps things will improve.

There must be some countries that are really into it and are being helpful to you and that you enjoy working with and do provide examples that others can follow. You can tell me which ones they are. I won’t tell anyone.

DO: Denmark has really shown a big leadership role in terms of the energy transition. They want to take on the energy transition links. There’s Friends of Sustainable Energy, which is chaired by Denmark, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Germany, and Norway. I link up with those countries quite a lot. Obviously, I always have to have a foot into Africa—my country, Kenya, South Africa, Morocco, and Egypt—because it also links to the work we’re doing with the COP energy transition team. In Asia, you can’t really do anything without the Indias. We’re looking at Vietnam and Philippines. There’s quite a lot going on.

Then in South America, it’s more type of a play, in terms of thinking about efficiency and clean cooking instead of access. It depends on where you are and what you need to do. We’re hoping that we almost have templates for other countries to gain from because we just all have to be very honest with ourselves. We are losing the battle, in terms of SDG 7, on all fronts right now. Something big, bold, ambitious, and people holding responsibility for it has to happen. It has to happen in this year.

RS: By this year, do you mean Glasgow? The upcoming COP?

DO: Yes. I mean, high-level dialogue and COP. There has to be things like how you guys at the commission are supporting on this much bigger RF [Rockefeller Foundation] contribution in terms of energy access…

RS: RF, Rockefeller Foundation?

DO: Exactly. Sorry, me and my acronyms. If Rockefeller Foundation is going to dedicate a billion or whatever, that could raise hundreds of billions. That is what we need to be saying. It’s not this kind of, “I’m going to pour five million into this technical assistance fund.” That’s what I mean by big, bold, ambitious. If Shell or companies like that are going to sign up to energy compacts, that’s huge.

RS: Hundreds of billions doesn’t come from philanthropies, though. That’s philanthropy trying to leverage private sector.

DO: Yes, that’s what I’m trying to say. Whatever blended finance models. I don’t think we’ve seen all the models yet. I’m one of those believers that something new could even come out there. I think I’ve heard billions, not hundreds of billions but, yes, we’re hoping that we get to a target and then we also support the countries to get there. Do you know what I mean?

RS: Right. I think The Rockefeller Foundation have committed to trying to mobilize $30 billion in philanthropic money to cover some of the really high-risk parts of the investment that has to be made. But on top of that is this big stack of private investment, probably runs into the many trillions, in renewable energy and energy access programs and into your efficiency programs around the world over the next several decades. The private sector plays this huge role.

DO: I think what’s also important is, how do we get the more commercial money into the conversation? The pension funds and the local currency, we see that those are critical for success, regardless of if the money is on the table. Nobody wants to borrow in dollars in Africa because of the foreign exchange. How do you get pension funds who have huge amounts of money and they’re in for the long-term game? How do you get them interested in funding this?

If you’ve seen, a lot of societies have grown and developed with their own local money. A lot of them have not developed based on a dollar-based economy, even in terms of their big-infra projects. It’s how to challenge. We’re having roundtables we make with top 10 banks in Africa and some of the pension funding, and just asking them the question, “What do you need to see?” Because a lot of them don’t understand energy enough.

They understand one big PPA [power purchase agreement] deal for X amount of megawatts, but that’s not the reality. You do it with a sovereign guarantee. You don’t always get that. I think funding coming in to guarantee some of these things might be all that’s needed. We’ll be interested to even talk to your team and say, “Look, what are those kind of financial instruments and models we can look at?” Because we do as much as we want with advocacy, we can sign up to everything, but without the funding, nothing happens.

RS: The money has got to come in. The point you raised, and perhaps maybe not familiar to some of the people who will be listening to this, of local currency is just so important. Because you can build a generating station, but the owner of that generating station is going to be paid in the local currency, which may depreciate rapidly relative to the dollar, and he may never be able to repay his loan if it’s to a foreign bank, unless there’s some sort of mechanism. That’s called a hedging mechanism that connects the two currencies together.

DO: Exactly, and what are those mitigating instruments that we’re going to put in place? Which does not cost as much as guaranteeing the entire project. About 72% of African countries’ currencies have depreciated over the last year. It’s a real thing. Going back to my Nigerian example, working with the most vulnerable people, I can’t talk to the village woman with her little shop and say, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to double your tariff because I borrowed in dollars to pay for this project and the hedging.” That doesn’t work and people don’t understand that.

RS: One of the institutions that’s in place to provide that kind of hedging is the World Bank. I have to say, I’m somewhat critical of the World Bank in this regard, and the role that they sometimes have played in large transactions. Not only in managing local currency hedging, but even in getting large projects underway.

They have tended to bring in private sector investment by guaranteeing in some way, or insuring the debt that has come in. But of course, somebody has to pay for that insurance. It gets stacked on top of the money that has to be borrowed to build the program in the first place or to plan it in the first place. Which means that at the end of the day, the ratepayers in the countries have to pay for it. It can add to the cost of energy for consumers. I wonder if perhaps we need to rethink, to some degree, at least, the role that these multilateral institutions are playing in underwriting private sector risk in investing in energy projects. Something that I think the Global Commission would like to attack next year.

DO: I think this is one of the topics we could even bring up at the high-level dialogue. To be fair, to the DFI FILs, they’re looking for new models in how to do things. Not necessarily just in terms of the instruments, but in terms of the speed, the time it takes to actually get things done. We will be at 2030 if we don’t speed up things.

I think looking at the role, not just by the World Bank but the World Bank Group, how does MIGA [Multilaterial Investment Guarantee Agency] really influence this conversation? How does IFC really influence this conversation? They’re the ones who are meant to be able to take the risk that other people can’t do in the private sector. Are they really taking the risks? It’s those types of conversations we need to have and how we can assist them to do better.

I think there are huge opportunities for the Global Commission. I hope you have all the time because we really need your help in thinking through this messaging, going into high-level dialogue, going into COP [Conference of the Parties]. We’re hoping that at COP we have a dedicated pavilion for SDG 7 for the first time. There’s a dedicated space for energy where, hopefully, you can come and speak and other people can come and speak about what we’ve developed through the years. The countries that don’t really get a voice can come and speak as well to the decision-makers, to the people at the bank, and they can tell them their real-life experiences of that.

We want to make it, like I said, as inclusive as possible and take these big events where we will have head of states and ministers and people like that at the same event to churn out the message. Look at it as, instead of the usual, “These are all the challenges.” No. They’re challenges, yes, but these are the opportunities and these are the solutions. This is just what we have to do as a collective global good in line with the Paris Agreement. That’s what I’m really looking forward to.

RS: I feel there’s a role for the group of people like you—and perhaps members of the commission—are playing, in helping to de-risk some of this investment through unconventional means or means that haven’t really been applied. In other words, maybe coming back to our original topic, this idea of optimality and least-cost planning. In some way, ensuring that investment in energy earns a return through economic development, economic growth. I feel that’s, in a nutshell, what the Global Commission to End Energy Poverty is trying to do. Make it more feasible for the private sector to invest and feel good about the risk they’re taking in doing that. I just noticed that, or rather I would note that Francesco Starace, our friend and co-commissioner and the CEO of Enel, the world’s largest renewable power company, has become the chairman of SEforALL.

DO: Yes, he has.

RS: I thought that was great. He’s so energetic and smart. Have you seen him yet playing a role?

DO: I’ve been seeing him on screen. He’s been fantastic. What I love about Francesco is the fact that he listens. Which you typically [don’t get], no offense, with a CEO of that caliber, and he really wants to do some good. Being completely engaged, putting me in contact with the right people that I have to talk to, in terms of moving forward, has been really brilliant. Again, I’m going to probably need a lot more of his time and he’s always available. Which, again, coming from a Nigerian sense, working people, from the presidency, it’s just really, really refreshing. I wanted him. I was very excited he decided to be on board.

Back to your question, the next evolution for me of the Commission is focusing on these financial problems. I would really like to do some work on, how do we focus on these financial problems to announce that these are a better way of doing things? We’re not trying to replace anything, just say that this is a better way of doing things. I think with the cohort of commissioners that are there, which are basically the best minds in energy globally, we can come up with something and we can come up with something that will actually be utilized, working with the World Bank, working with all these different institutions, to get consensus.

Another part that I’ve been talking to people about, and you might be interested in—and now I’m asking you questions—is defining what “just transition” really means. A lot of people [say], “Just transition.” What does it really mean? It’s different from if you’re a coal-based country, a gas-based country, a country with no access. It’s different meanings to different people. I think you have to drill down the meanings to geographical locations and you have to have a consensus globally of a realistic path that it’s still low-carbon, but it’s realistic to what governments actually have to go through.

RS: In a sense, you’re talking about social equity issues that exist in this country, the United States, at a very serious level. We’ve seen indications of that, just in the very unfortunate events of the last week in Washington. People who feel disenfranchised, they’re not listened to. I feel sometimes that our discussion about climate change and the need for measures like carbon taxes and other ways of monetizing externalities really haven’t been sensitive to the injury that people experience. I think they are becoming much more sensitive now, and I’m really heartened to see Ernie Moniz’s Roosevelt Project taking on some of these social equity issues in the United States in an explicit way, in a quantitative way, and trying to develop policy measures that can help to mitigate them. I wonder, are you seeing, you must see that in all three areas that you’re looking in, in SEforALL.

DO: I see it a lot. Being an African, it’s a bit closer to me, as well. Because I see a lot of people wanting to do good and say they want to do good, but a lot of people prescribing what they think the continent needs. This goes back to the data. That’s so refreshing about the commission. No one’s prescribing it. You’re using evidence. I feel like a lot of things have not been done with evidence and it’s made a lot of people disenfranchised and it made a lot of people resentful, really.

When you get to the crux of it, you can’t blame them. I can’t speak to the U.S. issue, but I can definitely speak to things that are happening in Africa. You can almost point out in Africa who’s going to get the vaccine and who’s not any time soon. It’s very sad that you know this and you’re still trying to push forward, “But if you do this, everyone might get it, or everyone might access to it.” There’s a lot of privilege issues depending on what part of the world spectrum you are. That is very sad and it affects a lot of developing countries. Energy really is on the underline of everything that’s happening everywhere. We really need to take it seriously this year.

RS: We will. I’m looking forward to continuing to work hard with you, Damilola, on the Global Commission, and to see if we can implement some of the ideas we’ve talked about today. Thank you very much for joining us.

DO: Thank you so much, Rob. Always a pleasure to speak to you. Look forward to speaking to you soon, and I’m going to take all the help you said you’re going to give me at MIT.

Electric powerPolicy

Press inquiries: miteimedia@mit.edu

We're hiring! Learn more and apply