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Opening doors to greater electricity access

June 23, 2020

Faris Khader visiting a solar array
Faris Khader (center) visiting a solar array in Thailand. Photo courtesy of Faris Khader

Faris Khader is a UNDP Regional Technical Specialist for Climate Change, based in Addis Ababa. In an interview, he shared lessons and insights from his work expanding access to off-grid renewable energy through the GEF-supported Africa Mini-grids Program. 

What are mini-grids and why are they important?

Renewable energy mini-grids, in particular solar battery-powered mini-grids, are an increasingly promising way to electrify rural areas with reliable, clean, affordable power. Mini-grids are localized power networks with the infrastructure to transmit electricity within a defined service area, typically serving 100 to 1,000 households. They are now the least-cost option to bring power to the one in three people in Africa who lack access to electricity.

In the past, the main way to bring electricity to remote areas was through an extension of the national grid – which was often challenging to finance. Recently, a number of disruptive trends – including dramatic decreases in solar module costs, digitalization via cellular networks, and new private sector business models – have upended the equation. Mini-grids and stand-alone systems hold great potential to bridge the gap toward universal energy access, quickly and at a low cost.

What has been holding back commercial investment in mini-grids?

Renewable energy mini-grids are relatively early-stage technology, and they face a range of underlying investment risks – related to regulation, social acceptance, hardware, and end-user credit, among others. This typically adds up to a relatively high risk profile for mini-grids, which means that today commercial investment can be limited, and when it is available, often comes at high costs of financing.

There is an opportunity for governments, supported by development partners, to systematically target these investment risks. For example, having transparent, well-designed, and properly implemented regulations on mini-grid use is critical to creating the conditions where private sector investment can flow – the challenge is that today, these sorts of regulations are often not in place.

Solar panel array in Eritrea
Solar array in Eritrea. Photo: UNDP Eritrea/Elizabeth Mwaniki

How will the Africa Mini-grids Program address these challenges?

The new Africa Mini-grids Program, funded by the Global Environment Facility, aims to accelerate the deployment of off-grid renewable energy by reducing the cost and increasing the commercial viability of mini-grids. UNDP is the lead agency implementing the program, and key institutional partners include the Rocky Mountain Institute and African Development Bank. The program will initially support 11 African countries in addressing key risks and underlying barriers that are holding back investment in decentralized renewable energy solutions. We aim to demonstrate that solar PV-battery mini-grids are commercially viable, which would open many more doors for energy access.

A main component of the program is a focus on policy de-risking measures, helping governments incorporate mini-grids into national energy planning and regulations including grid extension strategies. Such regulatory shifts can lower the risks and financing costs of these capital-intensive investments. With lower costs, mini-grids will be more financially viable, commercial capital flows will increase, and end-users will benefit from lower tariffs and expanded service. The newly available energy from mini-grids can become a catalyst for the development of businesses from households and small and medium-sized enterprises, and a dynamic commercial sector can in turn ensure the sustainability of the mini-grids.

What is a ‘typical’ workday for you?

For the time being, as a result of the coronavirus crisis, most UNDP staff have shifted to remote working arrangements. Virtual meetings on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Skype have become an important part of my daily routine. We have also had to adjust the project preparation modality of the Africa Mini-grids Program. Initial stakeholder consultations are being held using online platforms. Where field visits are not possible, data will be collected remotely through virtual interviews, online questionnaires and surveys, and collaboration platforms. With the current telecommuting arrangement, UNDP has initiated a daily webinar series at 8am EST, which has provided an excellent opportunity to learn about what other parts of the house are working on.

What lessons does the COVID-19 outbreak offer with regard to the climate crisis?

The global pandemic, which has upended nearly every aspect of daily life for so many, has given us a chance to pause, reflect, and reimagine the kind of world that we would like to pass on to our children. The crisis presents humanity with an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon, climate resilient future. I read an interesting article in Yale Environment 360, which drew parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis. The article noted that both the pandemic and the climate crisis are problems of exponential growth against a limited capacity to cope. One of the key lessons that has emerged from the COVID-19 outbreak is that “If you wait until you can see the impact, it is too late to stop it.”

Is there a person you have met through your work that had a lasting impact on you?

In August 2018, I visited our local partner the Collaborative Media Advocacy Platform, a group that empowers people in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, with the skills they need to tell their own stories. The work and commitment of both the organization and its Director, Michael Uwemedimo, impacted me greatly. CMAP has piloted a participatory mapping process involving marginalized communities in Port Harcourt, enabling them to participate in shaping the city and its future development. It has also trained women and youth on community journalism, media production, sound engineering, and how to tell their stories on film and on air. What really struck me about Michael was his infectious energy and vision for change. His tireless commitment and drive for transformational change reminded me of why the work that we do is so important. Michael has had an immense impact on the lives of the youth in Port Harcourt through his vision to promote urban renewal with an inclusive approach. Despite working in exceptionally difficult circumstances, he has managed to maintain a strong sense of optimism that a reimagined city is both necessary and possible.

What life lessons has your work life taught you?

I would highlight two life lessons that my UNDP career has imparted. The first is that you never know what you can accomplish until you do it. Looking back at the past 15 years, my periods of greatest professional growth occurred when I was pushed to the boundaries of my comfort zone or even beyond it. In those moments, I was confronted with a challenging endeavor that tested my character. Those trials can propel you to tap into a reservoir of inner strength and fortitude that you never knew you had.

The second life lesson is that listening is just as important, if not more, than talking. In my experience, listening allows you to learn something from everyone you meet. One can learn a great deal from listening to colleagues, community leaders, young people, and beneficiaries alike. Their unique thoughts, experiences and perspectives can in turn broaden your own worldview. When designing a program, public participation and stakeholder consultations are vitally important in understanding the principal needs of beneficiaries and how the program can best respond to those needs.