Access to reliable, affordable and clean energy is increasingly recognized as the "golden thread" tying together and enabling many other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Despite progress over the last decade in making solutions to energy poverty more accessible to the more than 800 million people currently without electricity (and the many more with intermittent or unaffordable energy) many gaps remain. In particular, the COVID-19 crisis has disrupted supply and demand for energy, both of which are necessary to meet SDG 7.
At the same time, transitioning to more renewable energy-based electricity systems requiring battery storage, whether in emerging markets or developed ones, will require massive amounts of mineral resources with significant human and environmental footprints. A paper published by USAID in late 2021underscores the urgency of addressing mining in the context of the green energy transition:
Recent global studies predict demand increases of up to ten times current production levels for minerals like cobalt, graphite, and lithium. No matter the mix of alternate energy sources the world turns to, the mining sector will be a key player in the years ahead.
To meet the ambitious goal of universal modern energy by 2030 — while grappling with the consequences of critical minerals demand growth — harmonized policies, coordinated investment and innovative research are urgently needed. Equally or even more important, however, are the understudied and undersupported partnerships that can catalyze and scale these efforts to make SDG7 both a lifeline and a means of economic empowerment and equity.
The Congo Power alliance represents one such innovative coalition approach. Initially launched by Google's Supplier Responsibility team in 2017 to reinforce responsible minerals trade and expand economic opportunity through clean energy, the initiative supports communities committed to the responsible sourcing of minerals that are ubiquitous in electronics and historically tied to conflict and human rights abuses. This mineral trade focuses on tungsten, tin, tantalum, gold and cobalt, making this issue particularly critical in the African Great Lakes Region, where much of the world’s supply of these minerals’ stock lies underground.
As part of its overarching sustainability strategy, Google committed to maximizing our use of finite resources, which includes supporting in-region programs that reinforce responsible supply chains, and increasing the use of recycled materials. These program commitments are also part of meeting the expectations of Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which mandate that all publicly traded companies complete due diligence on their supply chains, and report on those measures.
In line with these commitments, the Congo Power team has invested in 14 community projects since 2017 and has brought a broad group of stakeholders along. On a Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade (PPA) delegation with the U.S. State Department in late 2019, for example, Google, Nokia, Intel, Apple, Global Advanced Metals, USAID, U.S. Department of State, GiZ, the Responsible Business Alliance and RESOLVE visited the Idjwi Island minigrid and spent time with the Panzi Foundation’s Denis Mukwege discussing the intersection of human rights and responsible sourcing in the region.
As a result of that trip, the Congo Power team focused on building a deeper relationship with the Panzi Foundation and put community health clinics at the center of addressing power, gender, energy equity along with reinforcing responsible supply chains. The team also continues to expand collaborations with conservation areas such as Garamba National Park, which is deploying clean power systems to support local economic activities (both mining and non-mining) in ways that reduce threats to the park's conservation and biodiversity goals.
The program’s launch highlighted the importance of deep relationships between development partners, consumer brands and NGOs with deep in-country operating expertise, such as GivePower and Resolve. This multi-sector approach is critical for drawing in further "downstream" conglomerates whose customers increasingly demand end products made with responsibly sourced materials.
This strategy has successfully brought on some of the world’s largest manufacturers to the alliance’s commitment to responsible sourcing. Intel has funded two additional phases, and other partners are in the process of making funding commitments. The alliance collaborates with platforms such as Cobalt for Development (BMW, Samsung, BASF, GIZ, Volkswagen, Good Shepherd International Foundation and others) and the Fair Cobalt Alliance(Tesla, Fairfone, The Impact Facility and others) to reinforce mutual objectives in responsible sourcing, and support organizations that are working on the ground.
Beyond public and private partners, academia plays an important role within this consortium. Through a collaboration with the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab (RAEL) at the University of California, Berkeley, the Congo Power initiative explores how innovative energy solutions can improve livelihoods and resilience across communities in East and Central Africa. Previously funded research has explored the intersection between energy poverty and conflict, the evolution of real-time monitoring of decentralized energy systems, operating models for mini-grids in urban informal settlements, the impact of solar-home-systems on energy, gender and social justice, and frameworks for understanding community participation’s role in mini-grid projects.
This is just the beginning, however. Many questions remain for the RAEL/Congo Power collaboration to uncover in improving the delivery of sustainable and appropriate energy solutions across the various supply chains that constitute the lifeblood of vulnerable communities around the world.
Chief among the initiative’s research ambitions is developing a deeper sense of how to make $1 of investment in renewable energy "go further." Benchmark impact metrics for innovative energy projects are lacking in the empirical literature, particularly for mini-grid technologies, increasingly recognized as the least-cost way to electrify hundreds of millions of those without power. Developing and documenting enabling partnerships also offers a key resource for nations, businesses, multinational aid / development organizations and civil society to interrogate potential solutions and scale up winning concepts that can help meet goals set in the Paris Climate Agreements and other SDGs.
Fundamentally, such a private-public-academic partnership boils down to exploring what kinds of impact — described both quantitatively and qualitatively — different energy delivery models can achieve across institutional and geographical scales. And beyond the evaluation of impact: Which narratives can most effectively communicate these insights into actionable support for promising solutions and their developers?
Guided by such academic research questions, these partnerships are able to fund implementation partners as well. Nuru, Equatorial Power and OffGridBox are three such partners in East and Central Africa, whose operations are providing critical insights into key techno-economic and operational challenges to scaling energy access.
These organizations have a wide and diverse footprint. Nuru builds and operates mini-grids across remote, rural, and urban areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Their principal installation is one of the largest mini-grids in Africa, supplying more than 1,800 customers through a 1.3 megawatt solar-hybrid installation in peri-urban neighborhoods in Goma, DRC. Congo Power supported Equatorial Power’s very first installation mini-grid, a 20 kilowatt-peak (kWp) installation on Idjwi Island on Lake Kivu (separating the DRC and Rwanda) supplying over 300 connections, including several small-to-medium enterprises. OffGridBox has deployed one of its 3.4 kWp containerized power and water installations in Walikale (a mining center in eastern DRC), with more than 80 identical such deployments around the world.
To gain deep yet broad insights into the challenge of strengthening the "golden thread," RAEL researchers within the Congo Power alliance aim to be both methodical yet practical in developing research themes from these initial project foci — particularly important given the challenges of doing in-person research through a pandemic.
One theme that consistently emerges through and across such projects is the importance of "productive" uses of electricity — most simply defined as the ability of electricity users to generate additional income on the basis of improved energy access. When, where and how are informal artisans, entrepreneurs and laborers able to convert renewable electricity into improved economic outcomes for themselves, their homesteads and their communities? These questions have proven particularly challenging to answer, despite over two decades of scholarship describing productive uses of electricity as a cornerstone underpinning the financial sustainability, and thus scalability, of energy access solutions with high upfront investment costs and low margins.
RAEL researchers have brought novel evaluation approaches to tackle this problem, including live-monitoring of electricity consumption of productive use pilots across the region, geospatial and remote sensing techniques leveraging satellite imagery and machine learning, as well as piloting new power quality and reliability measurement methodologies for evaluating the state of electricity for health services, including cold storage, through collaborations with infrastructure-monitoring startup nLine.
Many important questions beyond how to catalyze income generating uses of electricity remain, however. Does street lighting reduce crime in remote villages or rapidly urbanizing environments? Can decentralized energy solutions bridge the gaps in Africa’s vaccine cold chains? How can project funders best collaborate with private sector implementers, NGOs, and policymakers to optimize the impacts of a given energy project, targeting outcomes as disparate as supply chain traceability, productive end uses, conservation or women’s empowerment?
These and many other research questions will guide RAEL researchers as the Congo Power initiative continues to gain momentum and partners. A much wider consortium of partners, however, is still needed to confront the magnitude of the challenges ahead, and data-driven research is critical to harness the disparate perspectives, resources and objectives such a big tent approach entails.
For corporate sustainability professionals, joining coalitions such as Congo Power is one way to connect many distinct pieces of the challenges that lie ahead: confronting climate change by supporting cleaner energy production in communities at the very start of their supply chains, tackling the human rights implications of exponential demand growth for minerals required for electronics infrastructure including renewable energy equipment and battery storage technologies, and ensuring the equitable distribution of potential benefits from the global energy transition are distributed equitably. No one company or organization can move the needle on their own, but it is increasingly clear that shareholders, consumers, employees and regulators are placing greater responsibility on global brands to step up to the challenge.
Partnerships such as Congo Power provide a clear pathway for private-public partnerships to explore and support cutting-edge projects, technologies and infrastructures, guided by the most recent empirical evidence of impact. With rigorous, intersectional and actionable research guiding such a powerful coalition of committed partners, a truly just energy transition is possible.
Editor's note: Serena Patel (MIT), Hilary Yu, Joyceline Marealle (both UC Berkeley) and Alyssa Newman (Google and UC Berkeley) also contributed to this article.
It was just last summer that SunEdison was a Wall Street darling, the very air around the fast-growing company seeming to shimmer with potential.
SunEdison was, after all, a red-hot company in a red-hot space — renewable energy. Its market capitalization reached nearly $10 billion, putting it on a par with the likes of Wynn Resorts of Las Vegas. Among the believers betting on its stock was the hedge-fund heavyweight David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital. With plans to buy Vivint Solar for $2.2 billion, SunEdison appeared unstoppable.
And then the company went supernova. Its shares fell from around $32 last summer to 34 cents this week. Mr. Einhorn furiously tried to dump his stake in recent weeks. In early March, Vivint said, “thanks, but no thanks” and exited the deal with SunEdison.
On Thursday, to the surprise of no one, SunEdison filed for bankruptcy — one of the largest in a series of recent green-energy failures.
There is a timeless element to SunEdison’s swift demise: an executive with an Icarus complex chasing a fast-growing market embarks on an aggressive strategy fueled by cheap debt. Soar. Crash. Burn. Repeat.
Yet the collapse raises a bigger question: Can renewable-energy companies be profitable? Can green make green?
The answer, of course, is yes. Just as soon as they cross over a fundamental hurdle: finding a strategy that actually works.
“We haven’t totally figured out exactly what the business models are going to look like, for who wins and who loses,” said Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.
Significantly, though, the sudden decline in oil prices isn’t largely to blame. The difficulties run much deeper, echoing industrial collapses of earlier eras — the telecom-industry boom and bust of the 1990s and early 2000s, and disruptive cycles before that.
On the surface, the various green-energy companies all seem to be pursuing different strategies. But there is a unifying problem they have yet to overcome: Finding enough customers to support the costly infrastructure they must first build.
SunEdison is far from being the only troubled green-energy business.
Abengoa, which grew from a small electrical equipment company in Seville, Spain, to a multinational solar and biofuel giant, is in restructuring proceedings in the United States and abroad. Solazyme, a once-promising maker of algae-based biofuels, has abandoned the energy markets and changed its name in favor of focusing on ingredients for personal care and food products for companies like Unilever and Hormel. And NRG has pulled back from its headlong rush into alternative energy as it restructures to focus on its conventional operations after the ouster of its chief executive, David Crane.
What’s remarkable is that these leading energy companies are struggling at a time when regulatory, public and investor support for the renewable-energy industry has arguably never been greater.
On Friday, world leaders are signing the Paris agreement on climate change, a sweeping commitment to lower carbon emissions that practically requires that renewable development be steeply ramped up. At the end of last year, American lawmakers extended important tax credits for green energy several more years, while in recent days, the Senate approved a broad energy bill that would further promote clean power.
Moreover, investors around the world sank hundreds of billions of dollars into clean-energy technologies last year even as the prices of competing fossil fuels — oil and natural gas — tumbled.
Though development in renewable energy climbed in the last 15 years, the industry is still widely considered to be in its early stages. Nonetheless, there has been a race among companies to develop, commercialize and eventually prosper from what many see as one of the largest tectonic economic shifts in decades.
Last year, China started construction on a massive solar farm in the Gobi desert that is expected to generate enough power to light up one million homes. Dong Energy is developing a multibillion-dollar wind farm off the Yorkshire coast that could eventually power even more.
And in the United States, the federal government recently approved a major new transmission line to move wind-generated electricity east from the Great Plains.
But all good bubbles burst. What is happening in renewable energy now has similarities to the telecommunications bubble of the 1990s. Led by hard-charging executives seeking big paydays, giants like WorldCom, Global Crossing and Adelphia started far-reaching acquisition and capital-expenditure programs — burning through billions of dollars — to buy cable companies or bury long-haul fiber-optic cable under land and sea. They were all chasing expected high demand and soaring revenues from the dawn of the Internet.
Those revenues eventually materialized, but they came too late for the first movers of the revolution. After creating a broadband glut, and buried under mountains of debt — let’s not forget the various accounting scandals and frauds — the many companies collapsed into bankruptcy.
But the infrastructure they created lived on. Last weekend, when you binge-watched the fourth season of “House of Cards” or streamed your own cooking show on Facebook Live, chances are better than not that your data zoomed through at least some of those networks.
In that case, it turned out that if you build it, they will indeed come. But as many renewable energy companies are learning, building it costs dearly.
Even before SunEdison, the landscape of green energy companies was littered with failed strategies.
Dozens of solar-focused companies around the globe have disappeared, through bankruptcy, insolvency or just shutting their doors, since 2009 when prices for solar panels plunged as competition from China increased.
Among the high-profile failures was that of Solyndra, a solar module manufacturer, which became a symbol of green energy ambitions gone awry for the Obama administration after it burned through $527 million in government loans.
Part of the conundrum for these companies is that the most effective way to cut costs has been to grow, to take advantage of economies of scale, certain forms of financing and generous subsidies that were set to expire.
But with all that growth has come debt, and an inability to show a profit, even if the companies are creating value.
“Clearly in a market that has had a lot of growth, you are going to have some companies — and in this case many companies — that try to do too much, too fast,” said Shawn Kravetz, founder of Esplanade Capital, which invests in solar power. “We’re going to continue to see a shakeout.”
The vulnerability to shifting conditions has been evident for industry leaders like SolarCity and SunPower, companies whose stock prices can swing wildly with energy markets and policy changes.
But it is especially the case at SunEdison, where its chief executive, Ahmad R. Chatila, set about expanding, seemingly in all directions at once.
With roots in making components for solar panels, SunEdison aimed to become the world’s largest renewable energy development company. It bought ventures in wind and energy storage, looked to increase manufacturing, entered big new markets and created new subsidiaries known as yieldcos to help it raise cheaper financing by buying the projects it developed.
That strategy was further complicated by questionable accounting and opaque financial reporting — SunEdison has received an inquiry from the Securities and Exchange Commission and a subpoena from the Justice Department — that confounded even experts in the field.
”This is going to be a big industry globally, but we’re stumbling and bumbling to get there,” said Erik Gordon, a clinical assistant professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. “If they weren’t trying to beat each other to the next rooftop they wouldn’t be needing to do this financial engineering.”
Still, industry analysts and executives say that despite the fall of SunEdison, the future for renewable energy is bright.
Indeed, there are a few stalwarts in the renewable-energy race.
Take First Solar. The company, which supplies solar panels and develops solar farms, has had its share of troubles. It has been the target of shareholder lawsuits claiming it hid big problems and misrepresented its prospects. Its stock, at $62 a share, is a far cry from its bubble-peak of $311 in the spring of 2008.
But by adopting a slower-growth strategy and reducing debt, First Solar is a rarity in the green-energy industry. It is profitable. Last year, the company made $546 million on $3.6 billion in revenue.
For now, First Solar may be an anomaly, particularly amid uncertainty around the presidential election and the policy stances of candidates like Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump on renewable energy sources. Some warn that a lull could settle over the industry in the short term.
“The Secretary Clinton perspective on lots of distributed clean energy couldn’t be more different than the Trump view,” said Daniel M. Kammen, the director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. “That could mean hugely different things for the growth of the industry.”
What is the history and evolution of environmental thinking and
writing? How have certain "environmental classics" shaped the way in
which we think about nature, society and development? (And, as a
corollary, what has shaped the intellectual history of programs like
the Energy and Resources Group?). This course will use a selection of
20th century books / papers that have had a major impact on academic
and wider public thinking about the environment / development to probe
these issues. The selection includes works that have influenced
environmental politics, policy and scholarship in the USA as well as in
the developing world. We will not only read these classics, but we will
also read reviews and critiques of these books ­ both those written
at the time of first publication, and more recent commentaries ­ to
explore the evolution of thought on these transforming ideas.
When available, the webpage for this course will be posted here. Please check back later for an updated link.
In this course, you will develop an understanding ­ and a real
working knowledge ­ of our energy technologies, policies, and
options. This will include analysis of the different opportunities and
impacts of energy systems that exist within and between groups defined
by national, regional, household, ethnic, gender distinctions. Analysis
of the range of current and future energy choices will be stressed, as
well as the role of energy in determining local environmental conditions, and the global climate.
The course website can be found here: http://er100200.berkeley.edu/
This graduate seminar will examine the relationship
theory and practice with respect to issues of energy use, technology
culture. We will explore the often divergent ideas about development
have emerged from civil society, academia, multinational development
agencies, and national development plans in order to investigate the
differing perspectives currently envisioned for a sustainable energy
future. The course will focus on energy options at the household and
community level, paying particular attention to the needs of
primarily in rural areas of developing nations. It will then examine
theories of energy systems as a national, often centrally planned
infrastructure. The seminar will explore ideas of 'appropriate
technology', and cultural and political aspects of energy services, and
environmental impacts. Specific themes in the class will include gender
analysis, renewable energy alternatives, the emergence of decentralized
energy options, and new energy and environmental linkages.
This technical course focuses on the fundamentals of photovoltaic (PV)
energy conversion with respect to the physical principles of operation
and design of efficient semiconductor solar cell devices. Incorporating
ideas from a variety of disciplines, the course aims to equip students
with the concepts and analytical skills necessary to assess the utility
and viability of various modern PV technologies in the context of a
growing global renewable energy market. Traditional materials science
and device physics are integrated with the practical issues of
connectivity, cost and market analysis, and policy considerations to
provide a complete picture of the engineering and development of modern
PV systems. Background in solid state physics or
semiconductor electronics is strongly recommended.