AI-powered pathways: Advancing SDG7 for a sustainable energy future

July 2024

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El Romero solar farm in Chile (80 MW for Google)

Featured guest post by Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All, and Co-Chair of UN-Energy

In a world grappling with multiple concurrent crises, the convergence of artificial intelligence (AI) and sustainability offers a beacon of hope; AI is already contributing to the resolution of some of the most intractable problems of our time, from tackling climate change and pandemics to reducing poverty.

In fact, a recent study has shown that AI could contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030. Of this, $6.6 trillion is likely to come from increased productivity and $9.1 trillion is likely to come from consumption-side effects. While these gains are largely from the Global North, AI is already laying the groundwork for robust energy transition strategies, propelling economic growth, and empowering countries in the Global South to carve their own net-zero futures. Relatedly, this report projects that AI-based technologies could potentially double the GDP growth rate of African countries by 2035. This transformative power of AI is an essential driver for achieving Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7), ensuring universal access to clean, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.

The conversation around AI has often centered on its energy demands and the subsequent environmental footprint, disproportionately impacting the Global South—regions least responsible for the climate crisis. However, a shift is happening. The emergence of 24/7 carbon-free energy solutions, increasingly embraced by governments and businesses, signifies a crucial shift toward sustainability. These solutions commit to fulfilling every electricity demand with carbon-free energy, encouraging local grids to embrace new clean energy generation.

From Commitments to Action, While Ensuring Equity

AI’s role in supporting the Global South’s net-zero ambitions is transformative, offering a shift from past disparities to a future filled with opportunities. It can support countries aiming to transition to sustainable energy, to predict future energy demand with precision and efficiency.

This is instrumental in empowering Global South countries to craft and follow through on their net-zero pathways that not only strive for emission cuts but also consider economic development opportunities. Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) has supported Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana in developing and implementing their tailored energy transition and investment plans. SEforALL has also worked with the governments of Malawi and Nigeria to develop national integrated energy plans that define the countries’ goals for electrification and clean cooking access using a data-driven power tool that helps direct resources effectively and efficiently to where they are needed most. In Rwanda, UNDP’s Sustainable Energy Hub is working with Nithio on AI-enabled financing to scale energy access. By harnessing AI, these nations can make well-informed decisions that propel them toward their energy goals while simultaneously fostering economic development.

The deployment of AI in crafting and executing energy strategies presents an unparalleled opportunity to transform the narrative in the Global South to sustainable growth and development while meeting their future energy needs.

Incorporating equity into AI’s data analysis means that planning can focus on those most in need, enabling decision-makers to allocate resources wisely and develop infrastructure that meets their communities’ energy demands. For example, AI’s ability to tailor renewable energy solutions, like solar microgrids, to local conditions ensures reliable, affordable electricity for all, regardless of their location or socio-economic status.

Challenges and Opportunities of AI

Yet, AI’s journey toward sustainability is not without challenges. The considerable energy and carbon emissions associated with training AI models necessitate innovative solutions. The 24/7 Carbon-Free Energy Compact is a testament to a collective commitment to developing and scaling high-impact technologies, energy policies, procurement practices and solutions to make 24/7 carbon-free energy achievable for all.

For example, Kenya’s engagement with the 24/7 Carbon-Free Energy Compact illustrates how governmental initiatives can reshape the energy sector, encouraging diverse stakeholders to contribute to a shift toward carbon-free electricity. This approach has spurred the local electricity utility company, Kenya Power, to enhance its infrastructure, allowing for better data exchange, smart meter rollout, and improved grid reliability. This ensures accurate billing and gives consumers data that can shape their electricity consumption patterns and forecast demand. Commercial and Industrial consumers benefit from time-of-use tariffs, set at USD 0.023/kWh during off-peak hours, designed to incentivize consumers to shift their electric loads between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. when the grid is powered exclusively by renewable energy. This helps reduce dirty hours to electricity generation and consumption by leveraging public-private partnerships to diversify clean energy generation, increase storage, and install smart grids.

Addressing these challenges requires a collaborative approach involving multiple stakeholders. Pioneers like Google, who are at the forefront of advancing 24/7 carbon-free energy solutions, play a crucial role in ensuring that these technologies become more affordable and accessible for the Global South, showcase the potential of AI in energy transition planning, and make these technologies available to countries in the Global South to fast track SDG7 achievement.