By Peyton Fleming, Lead Writer, Sustainable Energy for All

The energy ecosystem in war-torn Somalia is in dire straits. Diesel generators are the country’s biggest power source. Electricity, which is largely non-existent, is prohibitively expensive. Nearly everyone cooks with firewood, charcoal and even animal dung, which cause harmful indoor air pollution. Charcoal is becoming scarcer: the dirty fuel is a prized export commodity that is helping to prop up the Islamist militant group, Al-Shabaab, in the country’s civil war.

Yet, the Somalia government has a bold idea for ending this unsustainable energy path and the protracted conflict – renewable energy. With technology costs plummeting and a private sector eager to take advantage, the government is eyeing solar and wind energy to close the country’s vast energy access gaps while meeting commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement.

With support from the United Nations, Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) and key international partners, the government hosted a first-ever renewable energy forum last November that attracted more than 80 solar entrepreneurs, government officials and potential financial donors. It was held over two days – under very tight security – at the Mogadishu Airport in the nation’s capital.

“Many of the conflicts in this country are about access to precious resources, whether it’s water resources, pastureland or charcoal,” said Michael Keating, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Somalia and a key catalyst for the forum. “Renewable energy can help break that cycle. With investment and the right regulatory environment, there can be huge increases in energy access.”

Mikael Melin, SEforALL’s senior energy access specialist, said the ripples of providing affordable, reliable clean energy for electricity and cooking are enormous. “Financial savings, educational benefits, health improvements and economic growth are just a few of the gains you can expect by closing energy access gaps ,” he said, citing SEforALL’s recent research, Why Wait? Seizing the Energy Access Dividend.

The forum attracted not just energy entrepreneurs, but also peacekeeping & humanitarian aid experts intent on tapping renewable energy’s potential in conflict regions. “If you look at climate vulnerable areas, conflict risk maps and energy poverty, there’s a very strong overlaps on all three of these indexes,” said David Mozersky, co-founder of Energy Peace Partners, who attended the meeting. “There’s a lot of opportunity for broadening the lens, broadening the tool kit, for peace building by using renewable energy.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Somalia has a few factors working in its favor on sustainable energy. The biggest positive is the government’s moderately successful efforts the past several years to improve security, recovery and economic development efforts across larger parts of the country, especially in urban areas. (A deadly terrorist attack that killed several hundred people in Mogadishu in mid-October was a big setback, however, that deterred some participants from attending the forum.)

Another positive is a vibrant private sector looking to reduce its reliance on costly power from diesel generators and spotty electric grids. Somalia also boasts a fledgling green energy sector, which is already providing solar power to local hospitals and health clinics in Mogadishu and other cities. Among the leading players is SolarGen Technologies, whose primary products are solar mini-grids and solar-powered water irrigation pumps. The company has already sold more than 100 water pumps to area farmers.

“We are most proud of our water pumps. Access to water is more important than access to light,” said SolarGen CEO Abubakar Aidarus, noting the country’s significant food shortages due to prolonged drought and the civil conflict that has prevented humanitarian aid from reaching some parts of the country.

But SolarGen and other enterprises face significant hurdles in growing their businesses. Among the biggest challenges is an absence of government regulations and policies that will give investors more assurance that clean energy ventures they’re backing are solid long-term bets. Overlapping private electric distribution grids in the same geographic areas are a clear symptom of the country’s uncontrolled growth and dearth of regulations. Another anomaly was installing aid-funded distributed solar panels and batteries in government buildings in close proximity to private electric grids.

High tariffs, excessive fees on imported equipment and an overall capacity gap – both on technical skills and policymaking skills – also came up repeatedly.

Still, there was lots of optimism after the forum and at least five significant private sector projects have already been identified, with all of them coming on line in 2018. The UN and the Somalia government are also planning to develop a Green Climate Fund proposal that will focus mostly on sustainable energy.

“It’s pretty exciting to have the UN and the Somalia government both pushing this jointly,” Mozersky said. “What’s also amazing is hearing from private utilities on what they’re doing, what they’re planning. Projects are being built and money is being raised locally.”

Photo credit: UN Photo / Tobin Jones