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Access to affordable and clean energy for all is the seventh of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The implementation strategy to achieve this goal is closely related to other SDGs such as climate change mitigation, economic growth or the end of poverty. Most developing countries are facing serious energy shortcomings, due to an amplified energy demand, a lack of infrastructure investment and the impact of climate change affecting particularly those countries with a high dependency on hydropower. Making Light Work analyses a new programme, developed by the World Bank, that aims to rapidly increase the amount of energy generated through solar power in developing countries. The Scaling Solar programme, involves creating a “one stop shop” that pulls together the key elements necessary to develop and implement privately funded grid-connected solar projects for delivery of electricity at competitive tariffs. The programme is at an early stage, with engagements in a few countries in Africa and a first roll-out in Zambia.

High levels of solar irradiation in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa suggest the region should be well placed to meet a significant proportion of its electricity needs through solar power. And yet, despite dramatic falls in the price of photovoltaic (PV) cells, penetration remains modest. In countries such as Zambia, in one of our key study sites, around 95% of electricity generation is currently from hydro power. However, a recent drought has drastically depleted Zambia’s storage reservoirs, resulting in chronic shortages of electricity supply.

Solar power could offer a significant and sustainable complement to the energy mix in countries like Zambia. Progress in building further on programmes such as Scaling Solar would support many of the objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals, most obviously on energy, but also in terms of economic growth and infrastructure. Conversely, a lack of progress in expanding sustainable electricity generation might lead to greater energy insecurity, with the attendant risks to rapidly growing and urbanising populations. The stakes could therefore not be higher.

In December 2016 the Smith School was awarded a research grant by the British Academy’s Sustainable Development Programme to empirically evaluate the progress being made through Scaling Solar on specific country programmes. The main objective of this research is to identify the key factors necessary for the Scaling Solar initiative to succeed at scale. Our project is based on a multidisciplinary empirical approach combining financial, social, political and technical perspectives. Specific research questions for example are focused on renewable energy auctions, risks related to photovoltaic site selection processes, the impact of utility scale solar projects on energy tariffs as well as the relation between energy supply and economic growth. Within this research framework, the British Academy’s Sustainable Development Programme has provided an opportunity for us to make a contribution towards the global effort to achieve the SDGs.

Scaling Solar project site, Zambia (Alex Money)