Interview: Philippe Joubert, Executive Chairman, Global Electricity Initiative (GEI)

Posted on 18 February 2014

The Global Electricity Initiative will be holding talks with the leaders of African utilities at the Indaba. Philippe Joubert, GEI Executive Chair, tells us the latest about the programme.

What does the GEI aim to do in Johannesburg?

Africa is an important region for the GEI.  For Africa, the problem has certainly been providing access to electricity for all, and this becomes an even greater challenge because the region is growing.  Many parts of Africa are also poor, so they are more vulnerable to climate risk and extreme events than more developed regions.

Africa also has an interesting situation in terms of technology and market organisation.  The GEI recognises that one of the most important challenges is to bring electricity to remote locations with distributed power or off-grid solutions.

GEI wants to increase its coverage of Africa by increasing the number of utilities taking part in the project.  The Indaba gathers top business leaders and decision-makers in one place so offers a great opportunity for us.

At the Indaba roundtable we will be communicating the first findings of our global survey of utilities. We will also seek to understand the views of African utilities and energy players, and to hear about their best practices and their recommendations to improve the situation.

What are GEI’s initial findings with regards to electricity access?

The views of utilities have been consistent. They have said that that it will be a challenge to achieve the target of electricity for all by 2030 if the rules of the game are not improved.

They have said that the challenge is not a problem of funding, but rather of being enabled to reach those people who are still without electricity, through providing off-grid and mini-grid solutions, or by connecting to existing grid.

If there are funds, then why aren’t they used?

All the development banks, and even the private banking systems and independent power producers, have access to funds. They do see electricity access as a need, so normally they should be able to marry the funding capacity and the need for financing the project.  But we are in the unfortunate situation where we have the funds, we have the projects, but the partner can’t reach agreement on a satisfactory level of risk or profit for the project. This is due to a variety of factors: the perception of the country’s risk structure, the governance structure, reaching an acceptable level of project risk, the size or location of the projects, among others.

You’ve said that climate mitigation is no longer enough; rather we also need to work on adaptation. What are utilities’ take on this?

Utilities recognise that climate change is already a reality because they see it more frequently in real life. Extreme weather events are more frequent and more powerful, and they affect infrastructure such as power lines and power stations, while communities themselves are also devastated, as we saw in hurricane Sandy and recently in the Philippines. This means that the network should be transformed to become more resistant, but also importantly – more resilient – to these events. It’s not enough to be more resistant to the events because the strength of the event is unknown.  You also need to organise the networks so that they can come back quickly to their previous state of operation after the extreme event.

Utilities are investing not only in mitigation by decreasing emissions.  They are also working on adaptation and resilience to increase the level of our energy systems’ resistance and flexibility.