ISTS Asks: Rockefeller Foundation

9 min read

In Singapore, most of us have unfettered access to energy.  Access to electricity is something that perhaps we might take for granted. But that’s not the case for some countries across the world. Hundreds of millions of people in low-income communities worldwide, live in situations where they lack access to modern energy services. This is energy poverty.

Founded in 1910, the Rockefeller Foundation is an organisation that sparks innovations for transformative change through the collaboration of other organizations. Among its many goals, Rockefeller Foundation aims to end energy poverty and achieve energy equity.

So… What does it take to end energy poverty? What does it take to achieve energy equity, to deliver reliable, renewable electricity worldwide?

IsawtheScience speaks to Ms. Deepali Khanna, the Managing Director of Rockefeller Foundation’s Asia Regional Office, to learn more.

For a start, could you share with our readers what is the difference between energy poverty and energy equity?

Energy poverty broadly means lack of access to modern energy services. We must understand that the absence of modern energy or electricity significantly hampers an individual’s escape from poverty. On the other hand, its availability offers an array of benefits capable of triggering a holistic and a large-scale transformation in living conditions and livelihood opportunities.

Energy equity is about accessibility to affordable energy so that no one is left behind. So, our best bet for people who are left behind is to extend reliable electricity through investments in distributed renewable energy (DRE), which can provide clean, affordable and reliable energy to underserved communities. With access to clean, affordable and reliable energy, everyone has an equal opportunity to learn, to work and to prosper in the modern economy. Once we begin to achieve energy equity, we can start getting rid of energy poverty.

Living in a city that literally runs on energy, we adopt the mindset “out of sight, out of mind” when it comes to energy poverty. Why do you think energy poverty and equity issues are important to raise and discuss?

Unfortunately, many city dwellers forget that the amount of electricity they’re using has an impact on the energy accessibility for rural areas and tribal regions. Despite the significance of energy in addressing the needs of the poor, awareness of its impact on poverty has been confined largely to an abstract concept and anecdotal experience to date. As a result, the specific contributions that energy makes, or could make, to the lives of the poor are not well understood. Similarly, the gendered lens to energy poverty is also missed out on. Poverty affects women differently and more acutely than it does to men.

Therefore, energy should be affordable, so that it is accessible to everyone. Energy should be clean, so that no one is harmed by fossil fuel pollution. Energy should be resilient, so that it is there when we need it. Reliable energy can be a gamechanger for women in terms of economic progress. Women could play a lead role in our global transition to a clean energy economy – as beneficiaries, as decision-makers, and as entrepreneurs that build our clean energy future.

What would be the benefits of being aware of energy related issues?

As policy makers and investors, we need to be aware of the Rural needs of energy. The technological innovations of the 21st century can ensure equitable access to opportunities, and even have the power to end energy poverty in the short term. This extends to being liberated when it comes to energy demands even at a rural level. Reliable energy is key to sustainable agriculture, and for climate-smart, inclusive economic growth.

As for the government, there exists opportunities for world leaders participating in COP26, to chart a new course or make amendments to their existing one, for their journeys towards achieving sustainability and adapting to the effects of climate change. The case for DRE, based on its potential to decarbonise energy supply and usage, build climate resilience and to meet SDG 7 and 13, must be reinforced strongly at summits like these.

With the Foundation’s work in Smart Power India, we witnessed that access to reliable electricity has the power to change lives. Children can go to school in the days and study at night, healthcare facilities remain open round the cloud. Therefore, the economic outcomes multiply and lift communities, regions, countries, and economies.

Impact of electricity use on rural and tribal regions.

What are some specific goals that the Rockefeller Foundation has in energy poverty and equity?

At The Rockefeller Foundation, we recognise the impact that reliable energy has on livelihoods and their income and the rising need to eliminate poverty with equitable access to energy. We are consistently working in the space of distributed renewable energy to support a more equitable transition to renewable energy around the world to meet global climate goals. Post pandemic, our work in energy access and economic development addresses the unfolding impact of climate change to bring a more inclusive, green recovery, where everyone has the opportunity to realize their potential and a climate disaster is avoided.

Would you be able to summarise for us the methods by which Rockefeller Foundation aims to achieve these goals?

The Rockefeller Foundation’s has committed to $1 billion USD over the next three years to catalyse a more inclusive recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic by scaling up distributed renewable energy across developing countries among other efforts. This will help turn the tide decisively in favour of renewable energy projects in Asia and worldwide – substantially reducing CO2 emissions in the near-term, both by greening the grid and disrupting the pipeline of fossil fuel plants that are planned or under construction.

The Foundation works closely and forges partnerships with a wide range of stakeholders to achieve scale and to promote reliable access to electricity across rural communities. For instance, in November 2019, we also launched Tata Power Renewable Microgrid (TPRMG) in partnership with Tata Power. The goal is to empower 25 million Indians – establishing a new model for partnerships in this sphere. TPRMG anticipates being a force multiplier that will create 1 lakh (1 lahk = 100,000) rural enterprises, 10 thousand new green jobs and irrigation support to about 4 lakh local farmers.

If we were to talk globally, mini grids are impacting the lives of 500K people and the Foundation’s goal is to drive up access to green and reliable electricity to drive down poverty for 1 billion people within this decade.

Rockefeller Foundation’s energy grid investment.

How has the pandemic impeded the goals of alleviating energy poverty?

Before the pandemic, more than 800 million people were still living in the dark without any access to electricity.  Since the pandemic’s start, 100 million additional people have lost access, and more than 1 billion others still live in communities with unreliable power. Years of progress in the energy development front was washed out. We started witnessing an ever-widening gap in low wages, exposure to healthcare, energy barriers to education, surges in domestic violence, displacement and conflict. We as a Foundation had to reorient our goals, strategies and philosophy to overcome this crisis together. Therefore, the Foundation will be catalysing billions of dollars in private and concessional investments to scale distributed renewable energy infrastructure to improve lives across vulnerable communities in developing countries worldwide.

As we deliver energy to more households across the world and face rising carbon emissions from energy production, the growing threat of global warming is daunting. Does climate change make achieving energy equity more challenging, and how will the Rockefeller Foundation work towards alleviating energy poverty in a climate protected way?

Yes of course, climate change disasters do make energy equity challenging, especially with the effects of climate change like droughts, extreme weather, disease outbreaks and instability hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. All the work and progress get reversed within a few days. Marginal communities are left behind by the World’s response to new challenges. One cannot deny the need for green climate investments and a platform where DRE is cheaper. We’re investing $500 million of the Foundation’s own resources in ending energy poverty in a climate protective way. Thanks to pioneering breakthroughs in distributed renewable energy technologies, it’s now possible to end energy poverty in 10 years, without causing a climate disaster.  Compared to conventional grid-based electrification, scaling these technologies to provide green energy to half a billion people would save 1.5 billion tons of CO2 emissions over the next decade, the equivalent of electrifying almost the entire population of the European Union, with half the level of carbon emissions.

Energy equity/ poverty seems like a pretty large issue which is something that only large organizations can achieve. How would you encourage individual people to play their part towards this goal?

You know we’re living in a moment when a single idea can lead to rapid advancements in science and technology, that in turn offers millions of people the means to rise out of poverty. The formation of an idea or a concept starts at an individual level, from reducing, producing and conserving energy. The way the world is looking at social impact, if you’re an innovator and have an idea, it has the power to leverage partners and investors needed to enable hundreds of millions of energy-poor people. By accelerating investments in DRE, the idea will also be driving economic inclusion, job creation and resilience which will play a major role, especially in the emerging economies.

For more information on Rockefeller’s commitment to end Energy Poverty, please check out their video below:

The Commitment to End Energy Poverty: The Rockefeller Foundation’s Power Initiative

Written by Zi Shan & Raphael Ng
Illustrations by Lee Ai Cing


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