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Reflections on the Asia Clean Energy Forum 2024: Innovations and Insights

20th June 2024

By Dr Simon Batchelor, Gamos Ltd.

I was pleased to attend and speak at the  Asia Clean Energy Forum 2024 in Manila in early June, and this blog reflects on some of my takeaways.  It is by no means a systematic review of all that was said, so for the ACEF website with presentations please follow this link.

The conference had four thematic tracks and some parallel deep dives. The thematic tracks were Tripling Renewable Energy Capacity by 2030, Doubling Progress in Energy Efficiency by 2030, Delivering Electricity Transmission and Distribution for the Future, and Financing New and Innovative Clean Energy Solutions in Hard-to-Abate Sectors. All but the last lays groundwork for future clean cooking.

We had a deep dive into eCooking (Video 3 hours) and with all the IEA work recently in Africa its easy to forget the need in Asia – home to approximately half the 2.4 billion without access to clean cooking. With 57m people not having access to electricity in the region, and yet 1.2 billion still using polluting fuels (mainly biomass) for cooking, there was a clear headline call for the uptake of eCooking in Asia to be accelerated. We heard from  Dr Nam of ADB, our MECS ESMAP partner Michelle (PPT here, Video here), Hong Peng of UNESCAP (PPT here, Video here), and our Mikael from SE4ALL, and from the Government of Bhutan (Video here).  We work closely with each of these in GeCCo.

I think for me, what came across in all the side event talks was – don’t look back and ask if we could have done more about eCooking over the last 2 decades, but look forward to how we can leverage the gains in SDG7.1.1 (and 7.2 and 7.3) to accelerate SDG 7.1.2.  Undertake work such as that presented by Bhutan; to pivot users from biomass and fossil fuels to clean renewable electricity for cooking on energy efficient appliances, and utilizing carbon finance as one of the tools to enable the pivoting.

What was quite special at that session, was a journalist who asked a question at the end about the Philippines.  None of us on the panel were Filipino or had local knowledge so I took the question with a general answer.  That answer and the summary of the session made it onto the national news.  (Note video is in the local language).

However, some people will push back on the potential of eCooking by noting that some of the grids in Asia are fueled by fossil fuels, and indeed there are a number of coal fired power stations in use.  So, they would argue – switching to grid electricity for cooking is not that helpful to mitigating global emissions. 

However, remember the key themes of the conference – tripling the rate of installation of renewable energy, and doubling the rate of energy efficiency. 

It is this sort of language, aspiration and action that has brought the research programme MECS to focus on eCooking so much.  We have said repeatedly that eCooking is not a silver bullet to the clean cooking conundrum, but rather when we look at the state of global access (the headline math of 680m without access worldwide, 2.4 billion without access to clean cooking, implication being there are 1.7 billion with access to electricity but not yet using clean cooking), there is an opportunity to leverage all the investment into electricity as a means of accelerating the access and uptake of clean cooking.  And when we get push-back that the grid is ‘dirty’ as is the case in some countries today in Asia, we note the coming change in those grids.  There is a cadre of people and funders seeking to strengthen and clean up the grids.  The overall commitment from multiple speakers was how to clean up the grid and get a tripling of the rate of renewable energy.

At the session, Government of Bhutan (Video here)  presented their aspirations for eCooking, which UNESCAP, SE4ALL, MECS Programme, ATEC have all been supporting – and of course Bhutan is one of those countries that is already 100% renewable energy.

What I did find fascinating was the discussion on coal fired power stations and the energy transition mechanism. This is the real go to of some of the critiques of our research and evidence – eCooking with electricity from a coal fired power station creates more global emissions than LPG from fossil fuels. I attended a deep dive into carbon and was surprised to hear that just refinancing coal fired power stations and retiring them earlier than originally planned was not only viable but expedient to investors – even without carbon finance that shaved 6 to 8 years off most coal fired station lifetimes. Then, add in carbon finance, and you can potentially get an even earlier retirement – again by another 6 to 8 years.  So, the early retirement of coal, and its replacement by renewables was a cost-effective strategy, that most nations and private finance are considering.

Another push-back we sometimes get is that the grid is not strong enough in rural areas for eCooking.  It is true that some countries have installed low power connections to households limiting their maximum power use to 300W, and that running eCooking would require new distribution and transmission even new transformers at the last mile. However, even in our session, Dr Nam of ADB said that ADB (video watch for 4 mins) spend in 2021 was $2.1b on energy, and their budget for this year is $4.7b.  He made the point that about half this was on transmission and distribution.  My point is that this $4.7b that Dr Nam ‘has’ (advises on its spend), could be considered clean cooking investment.  The documents don’t mention clean cooking, but the action is ensuring that the population of Asia is getting a stronger grid, and through that is laying a foundation for pivoting to eCooking.

The conference also spent a lot of time on energy efficiency.  The call is to double the rate of EE in Asia.  This apparently has not been going well and there were calls for triple the rate. 

These changes are not cheap.  While the IEA clean cooking conference for Africa talked about raising $4b a year between now and 2030, the ACEF talked about raising $1.7 trillion per year to progress on SDG7 and net zero aspirations. I don’t mind admitting that to me these numbers are slightly mind boggling, when my day to day work is with African entrepreneurs who are struggling to find $20,000 investment!

It was a good conference, and nicely paced – parallel sessions but not overwhelming – congratulations to the organisers. I didn’t point to my talk as many readers will have heard from me before … but just in case you haven’t (PPT here, Video here).

Featured Image: ADB, ACEF conference logo, 2024, used under Fair Use Act.