Inspiring a clean power revolution

When energy initiatives do more than keep the lights on.

A worker installing solar panels on the roof of the UNDP office in Maiduguri, Nigeria. Photo: UNDP Nigeria

How much impact can just one simple change in clean energy have on an entire community? It’s an idea that UNDP is testing by leading by example.

And it started with a deadly epidemic.

About three years ago Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea were ravaged by Ebola.

Under enormous logistical odds, medical staff struggled to save lives. One problem was that hospital generators kept breaking down, and repairers, afraid of infection, didn’t want to go near them.

UNDP stepped in with a simple fix.

“In Liberia we installed a solar panel in the middle of a crisis in possibly the poorest, most challenging country in the world,” said Gerald Demeules, Global ICT Advisor at the UNDP Office of Information Management and Technology (OIMT).

It was a small start for a big idea — UNDP would lead the world in cutting its own emissions while helping countries achieve their commitments to the Paris agreements. It would break new ground in innovation; developing and testing new green technology, and, along the way, creating sustainable jobs.

A worker cleans solar panels on the UNDP offices in Afghanistan. Photo: UNDP Afghanistan

It would contribute to achieving six of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including reducing poverty, creating affordable and clean energy, contributing to industry and innovation, and helping to build sustainable cities and communities.

Three years on, the Green UNDP initiative has installed 4,873 solar panels and transformed 13 offices around the world with a combination of new technology, solar power, and electronic vehicle charging stations.

It’s revolutionized internet connectivity, in areas traditionally not well served, with the OneICT box — a mobile, low cost data centre, which is installed in 65 offices in 62 countries, including at UN sister agencies UNICEF and UNHCR. OneICT, which can serve up to 1,000 users, can also be used for communication in emergencies.

Overseeing everything; a global dashboard that monitors and analyses energy consumption in all UNDP country offices in real time.

The initiative reduces UNDP CO2 emissions by 1,110 tons a year, while at the same time producing 2,322,885 kWh of energy.

And it’s done something else. From Afghanistan, to Sao Tome, to South Sudan, communities that didn’t have even reliable 20th century technology are leapfrogging to the forefront of the 21st.

“We’re creating a showcase that will inspire people.” Mr Demeules said. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, it’s really exciting. One installation inspires 10 other installations. We’re at the inflection point of the campaign. It’s exponential.”

Solar panels provide clean energy and teach marketable new skills for local entrepreneurs. Photo: UNDP Namibia

As the global community races to find solutions to the most pressing problem facing humankind, UNDP is showing it can be done. The next step — exploring the potential of the Internet of Things (IoT), where devices will connect to the internet without human intervention so data can be collected to allow more efficient use, storage and transfer of clean energy.

“The future is the Internet of Things,” Mr Demeules said. “If I just buy an electric car, how is that going to create change?”

But if that car can generate its own photovoltaic energy, or connect to the local grid to allow power storage, then it’s going to be an integral part of a clean energy network.

From that single solar panel, which enabled a Liberian hospital to keep its lights on, has grown a huge network of clean energy change.

“There’s no initiative now that doesn’t include renewables,” Mr Demeules said. “If we can trigger a countrywide movement, if we do it the right way, it can be so important.”