Renewable energy is a growing component of the modern world’s energy mix. The growth of the renewable energy sector in China broke records in 2017 with 650 million kilowatts of installed renewable energy capacity. The renewables boom is a global phenomenon - over 100 cities worldwide are mostly powered by renewable energy.  Renewable energy is energy that is created and replenished naturally, while sustainable energy has two components: renewable energy and energy efficiency.  Building upon, increasing and expanding the use of that renewable capacity will decrease our reliance on natural resources and fossil fuels, creating a sustainable energy model.  How do we meet this next challenge of turning renewable energy into sustainable energy? 

In September 2011, then-General Secretary of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon launched the Sustainable Energy For All (SEFA) initiative at the opening of the UN general assembly. The initiative aimed to catalyze action around three main objectives, to be achieved by 2030:

  • Doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix
  • Ensuring universal access to modern energy services
  • Doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency

As we continue to see landmark achievements in renewable energy generation, as in countries like China, the first aim to double the share of renewable energy seems increasingly attainable. To create a truly sustainable energy system, we need to combine progress in renewables capacity with progress in the areas of the two other aims: energy access and energy efficiency.

According to the International Energy Agency, approximately 1.1 billion people are still without access to electricity. As long as energy poverty affects so many across the world, creating major inequalities of access to resources and technology, we cannot claim to have created an energy system that works for all.

In developed countries such as the United States, as much as 50% or more of all electrical energy produced is lost each year to heat loss, leaks and friction during transmission. While energy waste through inefficient infrastructure is so severe, our energy systems are not ready to reliably carry us very far into the future. By overcoming energy poverty and drastically reducing energy wastage, we can pull down the two main barriers to creating a global energy system that serves everyone, now and in the future.

How can we meet these goals? The SEFA initiative lays out a framework of 11 Action Areas that each hold the potential for identifying high-impact opportunities and for organizing multi-stakeholder actions across all relevant sectors of the economy. This list is divided into seven ‘sectoral areas’ and four ‘enabling areas’.

The seven sectoral areas identify sectors in which one or more of the objectives of increasing capacity, access and efficiency can be met through methods that address both power generation and energy consumption.

  1. Modern cooking appliances and fuels: Providing access to modern energy services for those who lack clean and efficient equipment such as stoves and fuels.
  2. Distributed electricity solutions: Providing access to electricity through off-grid, micro- and mini-grid solutions, including targeted applications for productive uses.
  3. Grid infrastructure and supply efficiency: Extending the electricity grid and increasing the efficiency of energy generation, transmission and distribution.
  4. Large-scale renewable power: Accelerating the build-out of grid-connected renewable energy solutions and the associated transmission and distribution infrastructure.
  5. Industrial and agricultural processes: Improving production efficiency, both directly and in supply chains. Converting from chemical to biological feedstocks.
  6. Transportation: Increasing vehicle fuel efficiency and the share of renewables in the fuel supply. Creating alternatives to personal vehicles and freight transport, and spearheading public transit-oriented urban development.
  7. Buildings and appliances: Improving efficiency through the proper design, insulation, and retrofit of buildings. Incorporating renewable self-generation options together with more efficient consumer appliances and equipment.

The four enabling areas provide methods and mechanisms for implementing the changes in fields that will be the foundation of sustainability.

  1. Energy planning and policies at all levels: Promoting direct public action. Improving the legal and administrative context for successfully engaging the private sector and civil society.
  2. Business model and technology innovation: Developing new approaches to overcome barriers that have impeded the deployment of sustainable energy services and technologies. Delivering affordability and reliability, and developing incentives for innovation.
  3. Finance and risk management: Promoting instruments to reduce risk and increase private investment in sustainable energy through the targeted use of public and philanthropic capital.
  4. Capacity building and knowledge sharing: Developing human and institutional capacity. Adopting proven successful local strategies for replication across the world.

By working within this framework and adapting it where necessary, public, private and civil society stakeholders have achieved a great deal in the six years since the launch of the SEFA initiative. There is more work to be done - as the SEFA Global Tracking Framework 2017 report makes clear, “Investment in energy efficiency needs to increase by a factor of 3 to 6” in order to meet the ambitious targets set for 2030.

The answers to making renewable energy sustainable remain clear: increased capacity, universal access, improved efficiency.

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