05/05/2017 07:27 BST | Updated 05/05/2017 07:27 BST

The Sustainable Energy Sector Is About To Boom


Photo: Ellen Dobbs/Ashden

I set up the Ashden Awards back in 2001 to highlight best practice in sustainable energy and energy access for the poor, because I'd seen the profound impact that bringing energy to people had. It's an incredible tool to lift people out of poverty.

Since 2001 so much has changed, so much has happened. To give you an idea of the main developments since then, there are really five key points:

- In the last five years the price of solar PV has dropped by approximately 80%.

- The price of batteries for energy storage has more than halved in the last five years.

- LED lightbulbs have become mainstream and they are now up to 10 times more efficient than the incandescent ones.

- In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the developing world, mobile phones are now reaching 80% of the population.

- And alongside the growth of the mobile phone we've seen the introduction of mobile money, in particular in East Africa.

All these ingredients put together means that the energy access space is going through a revolution which is making solar home systems far cheaper as well as able to deliver more power, and are a clean alternative to environmentally harmful and expensive fossil fuels. We're seeing the pay as you go model happening so that people can pay for renewable energy through their mobile phones in installments and this is having a profound effect. All of which makes a very strong case for decentralised renewable energy being a key tool to increasing energy access.

We recently announced the shortlist for the 2017 Ashden Awards and it was a particular pleasure to see an organisation like PEG Africa make it through to the final stages. They are the largest off-grid solar company in Ghana, as well as a driving force for pay as you go solar energy in West Africa, distributing clean energy to the country's most remote areas. Solar power is less well established in West Africa than East Africa and mobile money penetration is low so it's fantastic to see that they've simplified the mobile money process - both for people who are paying for energy products and for those who are lending.


Photo: Martin Wright/Ashden

Mobisol is another organisation taking the mobile money concept to new levels, selling high power solar systems which can be used not just for homes but for small businesses, enabling entrepreneurial customers to earn additional income. Customers can charge mobile phones and laptops and even run DC fridges without relying on fossil fuels or intermittent grid connection. Mobisol has installed some 70,000 solar home systems installed in East Africa so far, benefitting more than 350,000 people.

There are still however three big areas that we really need to address to help this nascent industry grow. First and foremost is getting finance to this sector. We need to find ways of bringing in large scale commercial finance and that requires partnership between public and private and also philanthropic sectors.

We also need to encourage policy to catch up with the technology and create a better regulatory framework in which practitioners can work in. Thirdly, we need to increase the capacity of the sustainable energy sector by building skills in the various technologies, in entrepreneurship, and in new business models.

Another of the organisations on our 2017 shortlist is Empower Generation who are working with women in Nepal to help them to become entrepreneurs by training them to own a solar business and manage a sales force. Their experience is that the greatest barriers to women's involvement in economic activity are confidence, cultural barriers like opposition from family members, competing domestic priorities and a lack of opportunity to develop skills and leadership. Empower Generation therefore provides training, support in areas like financial literacy, and on the ground mentoring for women to set up as CEOs and run their own clean energy businesses.

There are 22 incredible organisations on the shortlist for the 2017 Ashden Awards this year, all blazing a trail in their own particular field, and all giving rise to great hope for the future. It's an extremely exciting time right now for the sustainable energy sector which, under the right conditions, is about to boom.

The winners of the 2017 Ashden Awards will be announced on 15 June at a ticketed ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society in London, where former Vice-President of the US Al Gore will be the keynote speaker.