Demystifying the UN Sustainable Energy For All initiative

08. October 2012 By:  Luis-Carlos Miró Baz, ARE

Luis-Carlos Miró Baz, a policy officer at the Alliance for Rural Electrification (ARE) outlines the Sustainable Energy for ALL (SE4ALL) initiative – one of the aims of which is to double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix – and discusses how private photovoltaic companies can get involved.

Luis-Carlos Miró Baz

Luis-Carlos Miró Baz

During a conference panel at Solar Power International 2012, the moderator asked the 200 strong audience to raise their hands if they had heard about the 2012 UN Year of Sustainable Energy for ALL (SE4ALL) initiative. Less than half the attendees responded, thus confirming that, although it has successfully managed to create political momentum in the public sector, there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to informing private players – particularly small and medium renewable energy companies –  about the initiative.

Particularly noteworthy is the fact that companies specialising in off-grid renewable energy, including those from the PV industry, will be crucial in reaching more than half of the 1.3 billion people who will need to be electrified by 2030, in order to achieve the universal access to electricity target set by the SE4ALL initiative. Therefore, in addition to an overview of SE4ALL, the reader will find below a full analysis of the initiative and tips covering the different possibilities available for the private sector to take part in the formulation and implementation processes.

SE4ALL at a glance

SE4ALL, officially launched during the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2011 by the UN Secretary General (UNSG), Ban-Ki-moon, is currently being supported by the entire UN apparatus. Back in February 2011, the UNGA had already decided to designate 2012 as the International Year for SE4ALL [1]. The inter-agency coordinating mechanism UN-Energy, UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and UN Development Programme (UNDP) have been leading the process together with the UNSG’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change (AGECC). The AGECC was a key body in the initiative’s conceptualisation [2].

A High-Level Group (HLG) [3] was created as a multi-stakeholder body gathering personalities from all constituencies created by the UNSG to design the initiative’s implementation framework in line with the "UNSG’s Global Vision Statement" [4] of November 2011. The HLG was subdivided into taskforces, which were responsible for the preparation of reports [5], and which subsequently led to the formulation of the "Framework for Action" [6]. Based on the latter, the "Global Action Agenda" [7] was then prepared and presented during the Clean Energy Ministerial in April 2012. In parallel to the HLG, the UN Foundation (UNF) through the Energy Access Practitioner Network (EAPN) [8], and UN Global Compact (UNGC) have also been supporting the formulation process by compiling the input from part of the private and not-for-profit sectors [9].

The SE4ALL targets cover the three major topics in the energy field: (i) Ensuring universal access to modern energy services; (ii) Doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and (iii) Doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. The "Global Action Agenda" has added more concrete sub-targets (Action Areas and High-Impact Opportunities).

Ideally, all countries can participate in SE4ALL as donors or beneficiaries, as long as they commit to the objectives of the initiative. However, depending on the state of the energy sector in a given country, the order of the objectives will be re-prioritised. For instance, while the first objective represents the priority for those developing countries with low electrification rates, the second objective is rather targeting industrialised countries with high energy intensity levels. As of June 2012, more than 50 countries had already committed to the initiative [10]. A number of NGOs and private companies had also made their commitment [11]. 

During the HLG meetings, it was decided to fast-track the initiative’s implementation in a small group of developing countries. This year, the UNDP, the World Bank (Energy Sector Management Assistance Program – ESMAP) and the European Commission (Directorate General for Development and Cooperation) have been leading scoping missions in a few targeted countries. The aim is to secure commitment from country authorities, to prepare energy sector rapid assessments, which will form the basis of the National Plans and Programs – the first step towards the initiative’s implementation.

The preliminary results of the initiative were presented during a side event at Rio+20 in June 2012. The next milestone in the process will be the submission to the UN General Assembly by the UNSG of the initiative’s progress report in September 2012 [12]. A baseline report establishing the monitoring system will also be prepared at the end of 2012 and will be published early 2013 [13]. It has been recently decided to give a permanent structure to the initiative that will be composed of a Steering Committee and a permanent Secretary. We expect that additional information on the above mentioned issues will follow shortly.

Lights and shadows over SE4ALL

The initial steps of the initiative’s formulation process have been characterised by their strong focus on communications, thereby contributing to set energy high on the international political agenda. The publication of the aforementioned SE4ALL documents was accompanied by a number of roll-out events in all continents and the organisation of a side-event at Rio+20. 

If successful, the initiative’s implementation will lead to the establishment of a coordinating mechanism for the energy focused development interventions of a significant number of actors, including the European Union, World Bank and United Nations. From a private sector perspective, this would be particularly beneficial for the highly-fragmented off-grid renewable energy sector. A stronger coordination would help identify and upscale successful initiatives, and build confidence among private investors, this helping to attract additional private funds.

However, establishing a solid coordinating mechanism will require the development of a more elaborated implementation framework (including a monitoring system with measurable indicators) than the one contained in the "Global Action Agenda". More involvement from non-state stakeholders, including the private sector, will be crucial at this stage of the formulation process in order to raise awareness and build their trust in the initiative.

As it is often stated, the initiative will necessitate quick-wins in order to build confidence among the private players. Maintaining political momentum will require proof of the initiative’s concrete results on the ground. It is therefore necessary to ensure that the implementation of the initiative at country-level successfully builds on existing donor-local energy programmes, thereby avoiding delay in its implementation, and duplications.

So far, the strong involvement of high-level political figures in the formulation process has raised concerns on their capacity to conceive a sustainable system that functions practically. The strong top-down nature of the process has also pushed many stakeholders to ask for a stronger participation from the authorities of the targeted countries in order to ensure the required ownership.

In spite of the multi-stakeholder nature of the initiative, no public consultation process has been carried out on the international or country level, thus preventing a wider direct stakeholder participation in the formulation process. Hence many have called for a broader participation for the initiative wants to ensure its long-term survival.

The initiative should also be carefully planned to avoid creating distortions on the local market trends. From the 952 terawatt hours that will be necessary to achieve universal electricity access by 2030, 40% will be grid connected and 60% will be off-grid (18% stand alone systems and 42% mini-grid), thereby making a strong case for the involvement of the off-grid renewable energy sector [14].

The off-grid renewable energy sector, particularly for PV, has experienced significant progress during this last decade. However, the grid connected sector is a generally more visible and involved bigger player. It is therefore necessary that the initiative develops an implementation framework supporting a shift from an approach that runs the risk of being focused predominantly on a grid-connected system, to a more inclusive process associating more closely the off-grid sector [15]. Designing such a system will require a stronger involvement from technicians and private sector representatives.

Substantive financing resources will have to be further allocated to the initiative’s concrete actions, in order to achieve its ambitious targets. The International Energy Agency has estimated that, only to achieve the first target of the initiative, $700 billion will have to be invested over the 2010-2030 period ($33 billion per year) [16].

Powerful actors in the development field such as the European Commission, which is strongly involved in SE4ALL through its Commissioner for Development, Andris Pieblags, are currently restructuring their own funding schemes in line with the UN SE4ALL targets. In spite of the impact that the above restructuring might have, no consultation process has been launched by the Commission.

One would expect the European Commission to allocate more cooperation funds to energy in the future. The timing is particularly interesting as the 11th European Development Fund will start in 2014, along with the new Multiannual Financial Framework. Existing instruments such as the ACP-EU Energy Facility for instance, which focuses on financing small and medium-scale energy projects in the ACP countries and has also allocated funds to the Africa-EU Infrastructure Trust Fund for large scale projects, should be strengthened.

Other instruments, such as the Renewable Energy Cooperation Programme developed in the framework of the Africa-EU Energy Partnership (AEEP) could also become another important channel of SE4ALL EU-led funding. The AEEP could become an important dialogue platform for all EU SE4ALL stakeholders. Finally, it is also foreseeable that the DCI-ENRTP which depends entirely on the Commission’s budget gets more funding to launch new calls for proposals.

However, in spite of the increase in public funds that the initiative will result in, additional private investment will be necessary to meet the SE4ALL targets. The establishment of solid coordination, implementation and financial mechanisms will be crucial to convince the private sector to take a step further from commitment to the allocation of financial resources. In this line, a stronger involvement from the private sector in the entire process will be crucial.

Opportunities for the private sector (focus on off-grid) involvement in the SE4ALL process

The initiative’s focus on the private sector has created a new direct channel of dialogue between the public and selected private actors, thereby representing a unique opportunity for industry representatives to showcase innovative technology solutions and successful business models that can accelerate the achievement of the SE4ALL targets. As a side-result, all selected private actors involved in the process have benefitted from a substantive improvement of their visibility within the energy sector.

The rest of the private sector that is not taking directly part in the initiative’s formulation has two main channels to get involved. On the international level, reaching the UNSG, UNIDO, UNDP; the European Commission, more particularly the Directorate General for Development and Cooperation, and the World Bank, particularly the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) have become the main leaders of the SE4ALL formulation process and its implementation on the country level.

On the EU level, for example, one possible channel of dialogue with the African authorities, European Commission, several member states, the European Union Energy Initiative - Partnership Dialogue Facility, would be the AEEP. We, the Alliance for Rural Electrification, as the AEEP focal point for the private sector, would be more than happy to channel specific requests from the European and the African private sectors.

On the country level, SE4ALL Local Taskforces have been created in those countries where scoping missions have already taken place. However, from our experience, the taskforces have only led to very limited participation from the local private and not-for-profit sectors. It is therefore necessary that companies wishing to become involved in this process contact the EU Delegation, the UNDP and the WB country offices, in order to push for the inclusion of non-state stakeholders.

As previously mentioned, the off-grid renewable energy sector will play a key role in the achievement of the initiative’s targets. As such, the UN Foundation has established the Energy Access Practitioner Network (EAPN), which is focused on rural energy projects. Among others, a working group on micro-grids has, for instance, been created to facilitate knowledge and technology exchanges and networking.

The private sector can make commitments to the initiative thereby officially getting involved in the process and benefiting from all the marketing possibilities that the initiative offers. For example, the participation in the organisation of SE4ALL related events that are currently receiving wide media coverage is a good opportunity for the private sector to network, and promote its services and products. In this context, the Alliance for Rural Electrification is organising the first International Off-grid Renewable Energy Conference in Ghana together with International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and ECOWAS Regional Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (ECREEE) [17].

As a following step, the companies could also earmark funds and projects as SE4ALL related. This will allow them to be better positioned and informed once SE4ALL funds are allocated, thereby increasing the possibilities to receive additional funds.


Though, there is still much work to be done to complete the framework of SE4ALL. The initiative is advancing very rapidly and its implementation is even being fast-tracked in some countries. If the private sector wants to benefit from the future opportunities offered by the initiative, a strategy based on "wait and see" might not be enough.

The private sector, and in particular the off-grid renewable energy sector, must get involved in the initiative’s implementation on the international and country level to ensure that its framework takes into account the crucial role that the sector will play in the achievement of the SE4ALL targets.

It is consequently key that companies and industry representatives enter into direct contact with the initiative’s leading agencies’ (UN, EU and WB) headquarters and country offices, through the Local SE4ALL Taskforces. The indirect involvement through platforms such as the EAPN represents as well a chance to advocate and network. The earmarking of funds and projects will also allow companies to be better positioned once SE4ALL funds are approved by the leading agencies for the initiative.

[1] Resolution adopted by the General Assembly 65/151, “International Year of Sustainable for All”, 16 of February 2011

[2] UNSG AGECC, “Energy for a Sustainable Future”, 28 April 2010, New York

[3] Information on the members of the HLG can be found in the SE4ALL website

[4] “A vision statement by Ban Ki-Moon Secretary General of the United Nations”, November 2011

[5] SE4ALL Task Force 1, “Technical Report of Task Force 1 in Support of the Objective to Achieve Universal Access to Modern Energy Services by 2030”, April 2012 Technical Report of Task Force 2 in Support of Doubling the Global Rate of Energy Efficiency Improvement and Doubling the Share of Renewable Energy in the Global Energy Mix by 2030”, April 2012

[6] The Secretary-General’s High-Level Group on Sustainable Energy for All, “Sustainable Energy for All: A framework for Action”, January 2012

[7] The Secretary-General’s High-Level Group on Sustainable Energy for All, “Sustainable Energy for All: A Global Action Agenda – Pathways for Concerted Action toward Sustainable Energy for All”, April 2012

[8] Please refer to this link to know more about the EAPN

[9] Energy Access Practitioner Network, “Towards Achieving Universal Access by 2030”, June 2012, UN Foundation UN Global Compact for Sustainable Energy, “A framework for Business Action”, September 2011 UN Global Compact & Accenture, “Sustainable Energy for All: The Business Opportunity: A comprehensive analysis of priority actions across 19 industry sectors”, 2012

[10] Please refer to this link to see a list of countries which have already committed to SE4ALL

[11] Please refer to this link to see examples of commitments

[12] Please refer to this link to see examples of SE4ALL related events

[13] Brochure SE4ALL Baseline Report

[14] Energy Access Practitioner Network, Op. cit. p. 5

[15] Energy Access Practitioner Network, Op. cit.

[16] International Energy Agency, Special excerpt of the World Energy Outlook 2011, “Energy for All: Financing access for the poor”, October 2011

[17] To know more about IOREC please visit the website: 

About the author

Luis-Carlos Miró Baz is a Policy Officer at the Alliance for Rural Electrification (ARE). He holds master degrees in International Development and European Affairs with a focus on energy. Prior to joining ARE, he worked at the European Commission where he was involved in the formulation of the "SE4ALL Global Action Agenda" and at the EUEI PDF where he took part in the EU-led Technical Assistance Mission to Uganda in June 2012.

If you want to know more about this topic or ARE, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.

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dana hudson

Wednesday, 06.08.2014 13:45

Informing private photovoltaic companies about such initiatives is one of the first steps needed to increase the share of renewable energy. They can find new materials that are cheaper and by soldering them to decrease the cost of PV solar systems.

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