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Shifting to Renewables and Ending Energy Poverty Hinge on Open Government Reforms

A successful Paris Agreement depends on a paradigm shift in how energy is produced. The fossil fuels that power electricity generation around the world produce more than a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Many countries have already pledged to reduce their emissions and end energy poverty by integrating renewable energy into their energy mixes.

But shifting to low carbon pathways is going to require support from open government advocates. Scientific and technological advancements have made clean energy for all a real possibility, but countries cannot achieve such ambitious targets without increased transparency, access to open data and public participation in sector decision-making processes.  

Making the Shift to Renewables

New sustainable energy technologies are fast emerging as competitors to more traditional sources of electricity—fossil fuels, large hydroelectricity and nuclear power—that have dominated the market. But many governments are making only incremental shifts to clean energy, citing engineering and economic obstacles like intermittency and affordability as barriers to rapid uptake. While these challenges exist, the policy responses to them have much to do with the political economy context. The more difficult obstacles to overcome may be the entrenched arrangements between government officials, leadership of public utilities and owners of traditional fuels. The capital intensity of the electricity sector lends itself to both rent-seeking and patronage politics.

Increasing the transparency of energy planning processes and public access to the data, assumptions and models that strategists use will allow for more robust consideration of options and enhanced accountability. In South Africa, the Ministry of Energy developed clear energy planning and procurement procedures – including a web portal and public consultations—that led to a larger role for solar and wind energy in South Africa’s Integrated Resource Plan and a successful program of renewable energy auctions. More recently, the clarity of these procedures allowed civil society organizations to successfully challenge a costly nuclear power program that parliament had not yet approved.

Additionally, in Nicaragua, civil society organizations’ access to data on the planned use of Climate Investment Funds (CIF) allowed them to ensure that agreed finance remained available for clean rural energy solutions. The original Investment Plan presented by the Nicaraguan government allocated almost equal funding for its two components: geothermal energy development and decentralized clean systems for rural communities. During the implementation phase, the CIF observer mechanism enabled Nicaraguan civil society to monitor how the government spent the funds. When officials proposed shifting $4.5 million from the decentralized clean program to geothermal development, civil society raised concerns that CIF donors heard. As a result of this increased scrutiny, the original allocation remained intact.  

Sustainably Increasing Energy Access

As countries undertake the enormous challenge of transitioning to renewable energy, many governments simultaneously grapple with energy poverty. Approximately, 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity and millions more struggle with unreliable power, undermining economic growth and development.  

Rapidly growing clean energy enterprises, new technologies and decentralized energy services have the potential to reach rural, energy-poor populations around the world. Yet state-owned utilities have been slow to recognize the part that these clean energy enterprises can play in increasing access, viewing such companies as competitors rather than partners. Open access to electrification plans could create a common understanding for the role of solar home systems and mini-grids in addressing energy poverty, while enabling a range of service providers to synergize their efforts. Transparent, participatory government planning for where and how quickly nationwide electricity grids will extend would, for instance, allow these enterprises to choose their sites wisely.

Although principles for open data and procedural transparency have been established in many countries, in others they are absent or exist on paper only.  Information is often publicly available but difficult to access. Open government advocates can assess energy sector planning, pricing and site selection procedures to pinpoint governance gaps and create action plans for addressing them. The first steps would include identifying the agencies responsible for energy legislation, planning and regulation and then assessing their mandate and capacity to disclose information–the supply side of open government. Equally important would be analyzing the demand side of open government: civil society’s ability to access and use data to promote accountability.

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