Regional sales head Ramesh Jha of Schneider Electric India launches "Switch on India" campaign on July 3, 2017, in Kolkata, India. Photo: Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Shell, Engie, Schneider Electric and other multinational energy companies have recently announced ambitious goals to extend electricity access to about 200 million people, 20% of the unelectrified population globally, within a decade.

Why it matters: The seventh UN-backed Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 7) is delivering affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern electricity to the 1 billion people around the world living in the dark. It's a major challenge, but presents both humanitarian and economic opportunities to companies with deep pockets and large geographical footprints.

Details:

  • In October, Shell said it expects to provide electricity to 100 million more people and help turn energy startups into substantial businesses.
  • Engie aims to provide access to “decarbonized, decentralized” energy to 20 million people around the world by 2020.
  • Schneider Electric is halfway toward its goal of connecting 50 million new households to electricity by 2025.
  • Total has hopes to reach 25 million people in Africa by 2020 with its solar products, while EDF is also active.

Where it stands: These five energy giants have already invested in or acquired more than 10 of the leading household solar and renewable energy mini-grid companies in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In addition:

  • Engie's internal mini-grid company, PowerCorner, plans to power 40,000 homes in Tanzania by 2020.
  • Schneider has pledged to train 1 million solar technicians in energy-poor countries by 2025 and has achieved almost 20% of that target.

It's expensive to extend grids to the rural communities where 80% of the world's unelectrified population live, so investments have focused on decentralized renewable-energy solutions. Scaling distributed energy has already connected tens of millions of people and displaced kerosene and diesel generators.

Yes, but: Global finance for SDG 7 is “dramatically off track.” This deficit jeopardizes progress in other areas, because electricity access is often a prerequisite for clean water, food security, health, education and other SDGs.

The bottom line: While multinational corporations alone cannot solve the problem of energy access — especially for marginal communities that cannot afford basic services — they can use their size and balance sheets to make a difference.

William Brent is director at Power for All, a global coalition to expand electricity access through renewable energy.

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