See related Energy Explained post: “COP28: Focus on Energy Opportunity and Accessibility”
The Energy Opportunity Lab (EOL) at Columbia University SIPA’s Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP) organized the Energy Opportunity Forum in New York on November 17, 2023. The event, titled “Catalyzing Energy for Development and Social Progress,” was attended by 150 participants representing more than 70 organizations, including students from across Columbia University, and featured 15 researchers and practitioners who are leading voices in local, federal, and international work on energy poverty, insecurity, and justice. This event summary provides an overview of the key points discussed at the forum (several of which were also discussed thereafter at COP28 events in Dubai).
In her welcome remarks, Dr. Melissa Lott, senior research scholar and senior director of research at CGEP, acknowledged global improvements in life opportunities and health over the past 50 years. Despite progress in increasing access to electricity globally, though, she highlighted remaining disparities, with hundreds of millions of people still lacking electricity and billions unable to afford reliable electricity. Dr. Lott emphasized the need to address these gaps, particularly challenges related to clean cooking fuels, infrastructure investment, and energy security, including in New York. Citing recent research from CGEP, she noted that tens of millions of Americans face energy insecurity, emphasizing associated income and racial disparities. Dr. Lott concluded by underscoring the importance of translating evidence into actionable recommendations to address the urgent issue of energy access and opportunity.
Jason Bordoff, founding director of CGEP and co-founding dean emeritus of the Columbia Climate School, introduced the Energy Opportunity Lab at the Center on Global Energy Policy to address global energy inequality. Mr. Bordoff emphasized the lab’s focus on actionable research, translating findings into policy and practice, including around profound disparities in energy access not only globally but also within the United States. The lab’s two co-leads bring varying expertise. Dr. Diana Hernández, associate professor of socio medical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health and managing director of domestic programs at EOL, shared her journey from being a sociologist to a public health researcher, focusing on energy insecurity’s social and environmental impacts. Andrew Kamau, managing director of international programs at EOL and former principal secretary for petroleum and mining in Kenya, brought insights from his experience in government and stressed the need for evidence-based research to drive policy changes.
The speakers underlined the importance of quantifying issues and building trust through partnerships between community organizations and credible research institutions, emphasizing the role of academia in bringing ethics and integrity to research. Success, as defined by Dr. Hernández, involves households having adequate energy for life, health, and well-being globally and domestically. Mr. Kamau envisions success as a shift in investment strategies by reducing the cost of capital and addressing the perceived as well as real risks, ensuring that all relevant stakeholders are well informed about the complexities of the energy sector.
The keynote address was delivered by academic turned policymaker, the Honorable Shalanda Baker, director of the Office of Energy Justice and Equity, secretarial advisor on equity, and chief diversity officer at the US Department of Energy. Ms. Baker reflected on her personal background as the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of environmental injustice, and shared her experiences in communities like Port Arthur, Texas, which faces enduring struggles and health impacts caused by the fossil fuel industry. She emphasized the need to address energy inequality and recounted her role in leading the nation’s energy transition as the head of the newly renamed Office of Energy Justice and Equity. Ms. Baker acknowledged the challenges in making the energy system just and equitable, citing systemic issues embedded in rules and processes, similar to the structural racism and inequities that exist in the criminal justice, healthcare, and transportation systems.
Ms. Baker outlined tools provided by President Joe Biden’s Executive Order 14008, emphasizing the commitment to allocate 40 percent of climate and clean energy spending to disadvantaged communities. She discussed the Department of Energy’s efforts to create a framework for community benefits plans, requiring stakeholders to engage in justice-oriented initiatives, such as reducing energy burdens or increasing job creation among disadvantaged communities. Finally, Ms. Baker urged researchers, students, and the rest of the audience to ask critical questions such as how to “avoid the mistakes of the past when it comes to communities disproportionately bearing the burdens of the energy system while receiving so few of its benefits,” and called on them to actively participate in the pursuit of energy equity and work toward a fair and just energy transition.
In a panel discussion, Professor Michael Gerrard, founder and faculty director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at the Columbia Law School, highlighted a collaboration between EOL, the Sabin Center, and the Energy Bar Association on the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), emphasizing its importance in addressing household energy insecurity through federal-level policy. Discussing the findings from this work, he said that while LIHEAP is a helpful bill-assistance program, it falls short of meeting people’s extensive needs due to enrollment gaps. Professor Gerrard also touched on state-level efforts, noting the potential for state legislatures and public utility commissions to expand energy assistance offerings, such as programs that require utilities to cap utility bills based on a percentage of household income, or offer flat or tiered discounts based on similar criteria.
Dr. Destenie Nock, assistant professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and CGEP visiting faculty, discussed her work on identifying individuals experiencing energy insecurity. Dr. Nock, a researcher trained as an engineer, shared her interdisciplinary approach in using publicly available energy usage data to understand the nuanced challenges of energy insecurity for affected households. She emphasized the importance of translating research into actionable insights, providing an example of how her research team used utility data to precisely identify the addresses of households experiencing higher energy burdens, allowing for better targeting of bill-assistance programs.
Chandra Farley, chief sustainability officer for the City of Atlanta, discussed the “Weatherize ATL” program to reduce energy burdens and create healthier homes through energy efficiency retrofits, highlighting the significance of community engagement and trust-building in the process. She said health, housing, and energy are “a trifecta of opportunity,” connecting the role of energy in enhancing these other quality-of-life factors.
The panel was rounded out by Sonal Jessel, director of policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. Ms. Jessel emphasized the importance of integrating lived experiences into policy decisions, and highlighted successful collaborations in passing strong legislation for disadvantaged communities. Ms. Jessel also discussed ongoing efforts in New York to implement a legal energy burden cap, which faces challenges but can be supported with evidence about its effectiveness in improving outcomes for households.
Overall, the panelists emphasized the need for multidisciplinary approaches, data-driven interventions, and collaborative efforts to address energy insecurity comprehensively.
CGEP Fellow Jonathan Elkind moderated a discussion on the importance of addressing international energy needs for poverty reduction, job creation, and overall economic development. Angela Churie Kallhauge, executive vice president of impact at Environmental Defense Fund, emphasized the role of carbon pricing and carbon markets in mobilizing investment for clean energy in Africa. She discussed the potential and challenges of these markets, such as the lack of transparent regulation and institutional capacity. To build capacity and bring legitimacy to the process, she stressed the need to partner with local regulatory bodies and institutions of higher learning when designing and operating African carbon markets.
Dr. Vijay Modi, professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University, shared insights from his team’s work in Uganda, focusing on the necessity of understanding actual demands on the ground. He emphasized the importance of addressing productive rural energy needs, such as agricultural processing and irrigation, which are often the main drivers of rural economic growth. He highlighted current spending on inefficient and polluting diesel generators for such activities, and the absence of low-cost financing to help farmers transition to renewable energy alternatives.
Stéphane A. Rigny, founder and CEO of Sarmin Holdings Inc., a private investment company focused on developing energy and natural resource projects in Africa, discussed a gap between theory and practice in implementing energy projects, which often results from fundamental misunderstanding and misperceptions of risks on the ground. While there are many opportunities to develop bankable projects, he said understanding the risks requires time and dedication. He also stressed the need to rapidly scale up investments for transmission and distribution infrastructure across the African continent to deliver low-cost power to industries that can support local economic development.
Overall, the panelists urged a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to energy development in Africa, recognizing existing opportunities and the imperative of understanding and engaging with local communities and demands.
Andrew Kamau and Ambassador Martin Kimani, Kenya’s permanent representative to the United Nations, discussed how energy and climate stressors contribute to conflict and migration. Dr. Kimani also highlighted intricate dynamics in the African continent, emphasizing that young people in the region are concerned about unemployment, the economy, health, water supplies, and other issues, while climate is often not explicitly mentioned. However, he stressed that climate change is intertwined with their concerns, citing Kenya’s experiences with flooding and droughts and their impacts on infrastructure, water access, and livelihoods.
Dr. Kimani said energy and security perspectives should be brought together, asserting that energy development and investment must be linked with security considerations at the local level. He discussed how extreme weather events, driven by climate change, contribute to conflicts, especially in pastoralist communities because the lack of pasture or water forces these communities to move into neighboring territories, raising the potential for armed conflicts. When these divisions are also based on religion or ethnicity, it can lead to extreme forms of insecurity. Dr. Kimani called for collaboration between energy and security experts, stating that peace-building efforts, including peace deals and mediation, should involve energy access and equity considerations.
Matthew Harris, founder of bedari collective, founding partner at Global Infrastructure Partners, and chair of the CGEP Advisory Board discussed the criticality of energy access amid global challenges, acknowledging its significance for human thriving. He underscored the staggering number of people without adequate energy access globally and emphasized the need to rectify imbalances and address disparities, citing evidence of Americans sacrificing basic necessities to pay energy bills. Mr. Harris also touched on the challenges of the energy transition, urging bold and innovative solutions to provide energy access to every individual on the planet while navigating the complexities of decarbonizing the global economy.
 Jason Bordoff and Andrew Kamau, “Energy Opportunity and Accessibility at COP28,” Energy Explained blog, Center on Global Energy Policy, December 7, 2023, https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/?post_type=blog&p=19061
 Diana Hernández, Qëndresa Krasniqi, and Alexandra Peek, “Energy Insecurity in the United States,” Center on Global Energy Policy, October 26, 2023, https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/publications/energy-insecurity-in-the-united-states/.
 Vivek Shastry, Andrew Kamau, Qëndresa Krasniqi, and Diana Hernández, “Energy Opportunity: A Solutions-Centric Framework to Catalyze Energy for Well-Being, Social Progress, and Development,” Center on Global Energy Policy, forthcoming, https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/energy-opportunity-a-solutions-centric-framework-to-catalyze-energy-for-well-being-social-progress-and-development/.
 Executive Office of the President, “Executive Order 14008: Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” Federal Register, February 1, 2021, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021/02/01/2021-02177/tackling-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad.
 Andrea Nishi, Diana Hernández, and Michael Gerrard, “Energy Insecurity Mitigation: The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and Other Low-Income Relief Programs in the US,” Center on Global Energy Policy, November 15, 2023, https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/publications/energy-insecurity-mitigation-the-low-income-home-energy-assistance-program-and-other-low-income-relief-programs-in-the-us/.
I recently returned from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where I joined roughly 84,000 people for the largest climate conference ever: COP28.
Upon returning from COP28 in Dubai late last week, the need to address the energy needs of the developing world is more pressing now than ever before.
Nearly 775 million people around the globe are estimated to have no access to electricity. In 2022, that number rose.
This commentary contextualizes the scale of persistent energy burdens in both emerging and developed economies.