A unique perspective on renewable energy

In a conversation with Rachel Kyte, the U.N. special representative and CEO of Sustainable Energy for All discusses how this energy sector has changed in the past decade and what happens when political will doesn’t match the science.

Rachel Kyte has a unique perspective on climate change and the environment. She’s both a special representative to the United Nations and CEO of an international organization called Sustainable Energy for All, technically one job for which she wears two hats. All the work is geared toward broadening access to sustainable energy worldwide, including for the billion or so people who still don’t have access to electricity.

When Kyte came to Penn at the invitation of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, she spoke to an overflowing room about the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, how the world can more easily transition to renewables, and how, despite the progress to date, there’s still much farther to go.

Penn Today discussed with Kyte her vision for making sustainable energy available to all.

Rachel Kyte stands at a podium speaking, the sign on the podium reads "Kleinman Center for Energy Policy."
Rachel Kyte speaking at a Kleinman Center for Energy event. (Photo: William Cohen)


How did you get your start in the sustainable energy world?

I’ve worked in aspects of sustainable development for a long time. I started off in youth politics in Europe, and in the early days of understanding climate change it was acid rain [that people worried about], but it was also the colonial footprint that Europe had on the world. I was born of the generation that wanted to change that; we wanted Europe to be a force for good in the world. 

I’ve also worked for NGOs and the International Finance Corporation and at The World Bank, focusing on private investment. Those were the early days of what is now a robust green bond movement and other new financial tools used to speed up sustainability. Then, in the run-up to the Paris Climate Agreement, I ended up as special envoy and vice president for climate change for the whole of the World Bank group.

Where does Sustainable Energy for All fit into all of this?

Sustainable Energy for All was set up with one foot in the U.N., one foot outside of the U.N., to allow the private sector to be a genuine partner. When you’re inside the U.N., it’s a construct of member states, but, being outside, we’re a true partnership, so we can work in a way that’s more flexible.

Within that capacity, as the secretary general’s special representative, my job is to make sure that he and his senior team understand what’s going on in the energy transition and what member states need to understand, as well as where the U.N. can nudge, encourage, propel people forward faster. I’m bringing his view out to the world and bringing the world to him, saying, “There are these new developments, this is how we can understand them, and this is what it might mean for progress.”

From your vantage point, how has the renewable energy sector changed in the past decade?

In the last 10 years, the technology has improved, and the cost of the technology has fallen by 80%, in particular for solar photovoltaics and wind energy. Now, in most parts of the world, solar and wind are price-competitive, certainly with coal but with most fossil fuels. That’s not to say that you have two M&Ms in front of you, one’s blue, one’s brown, which do you pick? You have a grid into which the energy has to be absorbed, so you’ve got issues around stabilization and making sure that the grid can work, but it’s not the case that we can’t afford renewable energy. The revolution is here, and we’ve now got to exploit it. We can go at scale, and we can go affordably at scale. That’s a success story. 

Are there other, lesser-known success stories?

Countries like Kenya are embracing [renewable energy] and you see them going from 20% to 50% electrification in just 20 years. You see Bangladesh having built a really effective model of a rural electrification agency, and you see those numbers going up very fast as well. In India, where Prime Minister Modi said he wanted everybody to have a toilet and everybody to have electricity, you see an extraordinary closing of the access gap. Where there’s a political will, there is now—because of technology—a way. 

What happens if the political will doesn’t align with a focus on renewable energy and the Sustainable Development Goals?

From the U.N.’s perspective, the Sustainable Development Goals are universal. This need to have affordable, reliable, clean energy is as relevant if you’re living on a low income in a small town in rural Texas or if you’re living on a reservation in the northwest United States or if you’re living in a project in Brooklyn. You have the same rights, and the international community has the same responsibility. This isn’t a developing project for developing countries; this is about everybody. 

When I travel around the United States, blue states or red states, what I hear and see are communities wanting good local jobs, clean air, and affordable energy bills. The really great news is that most of them have realized that is going to come from renewable energy. It’s also going to come from energy efficiency. We’ve got so much to thank fossil fuels for because they’ve allowed us to develop to this point. But that era is over.

That doesn’t seem to be the sentiment at the top levels of the U.S. government, at least not in 2019.

The federal government’s focus on propping up part of the energy system of the past is at odds with where the science is saying we need to go but also where investment—including U.S. investment, public at the level of states, and private—is voting. Private investment is going into the clean economy, public and private. We have a situation where we have one narrative coming from the federal government and another reality in large parts of the rest of the country. It’s not a Democrat-Republican dichotomy. It is a federal-and-everybody-else dichotomy.

We should be having a different conversation in the U.S., one about how to decarbonize the economy by 2050. In Alberta, an economy built on tar sands, there is a dialogue between the union, communities, the federal government, and the provincial government about what they want Alberta to look like in the future. In other parts of the world, like in Poland and Germany, that’s the conversation that’s going on. Americans are being short-changed by not having that conversation now.

Where do we go from here?

We’re standing at this really important moment. Everything’s a little bit too little too late. We’re not on course for the energy transition we need. We’re not on course for the climate action we need. But what’s exciting is that we have the money, we have the technology, mostly. Now we need the political will to put the policies in place that will make it go quickly. Energy systems of the future are going to look nothing like the energy systems of the past. They’re going to be highly digital, highly decentralized, and, in fact, democratized, and that’s actually very exciting. 

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Though the world has made significant headway in the push toward renewable energy, with serious technological advancements and lower costs for those technologies, there’s one area that Kyte says the world isn’t yet doing well enough: Clean fuels for cooking.

“It seems ridiculous to me that in 2019, in a world with so many sophisticated solutions to so many problems, we can’t find a way for almost 3 billion people to have access to a meal that’s cooked with clean fuels,” she says.

It’s a deadly problem, she adds. The World Health Organization estimates that each year, nearly 4 million people die from illnesses related to indoor air pollution caused by using kerosene and solid fuels like charcoal and dung in open fires. The people who do the cooking—mostly poor women in rural areas—and their children experience the greatest levels of exposure.

But that fact, that there’s a human-health cost is finally starting to turn the tide in a way that environmental and climate pressures never did, Kyte says. “It’s been a silent problem because it’s a got a female face,” she adds. “But the health statistics are now beginning to force this issue to the top of the to-do list.”