In 1981, Nairobi hosted the first international conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy. World leaders came together for the first time to discuss potential pathways to a low-carbon future. Energy prices were at historic highs and, for many, a shift from conventional fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy seemed to be an obvious course of action. This view was held not only by leaders in wealthy countries; it gained a great deal of traction in the context of rural development and poverty alleviation across the global south, including the host-country, Kenya. A quarter of a century later, world leaders are again convening in Nairobi. The low-carbon future discussed in Nairobi 25 years ago seems as distant now as it did then. Promising steps have been made in a few sectors, but most areas remain with little or no access to modern energy services. This paper explores Kenya’s experience with energy service provision between the 1981 conference and today. We use case studies based on empirical research in three areas: solar photovoltaics (PV), diesel mini-grids, and woodfuels to examine the role that energy plays in sustainable development in Kenya.