By now it is clear that climate change is an immediate threat as well as a problem that will affect our children in the distant future.  At a meeting of the Clean Investment Funds Partnership Forum in Cape Town there was a telling comment in a session I chaired on climate change science when a participant from the Ministry of Energy in Ethiopia got up and said, “I am glad we are talking about the tools that are available for community planning for low-carbon development, but everyone in the rural areas of East Africa sees that the climate is changing.  My mother tells me every season the rains and temperatures are different than when she was young.”

In response, I posted a blog last week that I hope will become the start of an online atlas of data and modelling tools for sustainable energy development: “A List of Low-Carbon Energy and Development Tools.”

So what to do?

Clearly the time has come for the world to build a much larger economic commitment for energy efficiency and renewable energy.  This was also the conclusion of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Renewable Energy that I helped to develop where we said the potential was there if we were willing to harness technological innovation, policy levers, and energy markets.

Like most issues, this requires a varied approach that taps many arguments and interests.  This is classic coalition-building.  Putting more energy in and money towards the manufacturing of innovative green technologies is key: exploiting the wind or sun without solar panels and turbines is like trying to catch fish without a net or rod. Africa is poised to manufacture the ‘nets’ for clean energy.

Opportunities exist at many scales of activity: from village-level programs to manufacturing improved efficiency woodstoves, to building the hardware and knowledge systems to construct local ‘mini-grids’, to national efforts and global partnerships for large-scale manufacturing. The multinational development community can help, and is ramping up activities like the Scaling Up Renewable Energy (SREP) program that was a focus of partnership meeting on the Climate Investment Forum.   China is investing heavily in Africa at the moment, and local manufacturing and national capacity building can be part of that equation.

I chaired a session on Scaling Up Manufacturing at which the panelists told remarkable stories about these opportunities.  Stimulating the green energy industry creates jobs, said Dan Gizaw, a founder of Canton, Michigan-based Danotek, a company that manufactures permanent magnet generators for wind turbines. Gizaw is from Ethiopia, and the company established manufacturing facilities there. “Manufacturing wind turbines and turbine components locally has a job creating advantage you don’t have when you import them. We have created 475 jobs with our factory.”

Kenya’s Nancy Chege, national director of the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Coordinator, told a similar, community-focused story. Chege noted that her program awards start-up grants for communities that identify technology and knowledge-based solutions to local issues. A program to develop efficient cookstoves for schools and community centers garnered one of her grants and a prestigious Ashden Award. One of the principals of that program, Charles Kirubi, went on to earn his Ph.D. with me at Berkeley, and is now back in Kenya as both a lecturer at Kenyatta University and as an entrepreneur selling solar lanterns.

Silvia Pariente-David, senior energy specialist at the World Bank, agrees. In her comments about one of the most high-profile clean energy manufacturing and installation projects based in Morocco, she noted that thousands of jobs will be created in the years to come. “The number of jobs depends on what percentage of the applications are manufactured locally,” she said. “By 2020-2025, the Moroccan solar industry will generate up to 80,000 jobs if 65 percent of the components of solar panels is produced locally.”   Silvia’s team has a vision for three gigawatts of solar power based in Morocco for domestic use and for export to Europe.

Of course, there are some challenges that make the manufacturing of renewable energy applications in Africa a tricky affair.

“The quality is not always up to scratch because certification in Africa is limited. We need to improve this, as variable quality may scare off investors who want to invest their money in Africa’s green energy industry,” says Tanja Faller, economist at the African Development Bank. “Africa also struggles with a shortage of skilled workers. These problems are not unsolvable but need attention.”

Still, I see this as a wonderfully fast-growing sector where Africa can see a triple win.  The low-level of electricity access in many Africa nations means that the markets are right at hand.  New capital is needed, but with coordination of donors and the private sector, is ready to flow.  And most importantly, the needs for energy and the resource base of solar, wind, geothermal, sustainable hydropower, and more, are all beginning to show serious signs of economic life.

In my work on green jobs around the world, I have seen the economic potential.  The chief executive officer of Vestas Wind Energy, Ditlev Engel, and I wrote a report, Green Jobs and the Clean Energy Economy, looking at two cases, the 20,000 employees in his company, and the dynamic off-grid solar industry in Kenya.  In this report, we looked at the mix of policy innovations and manufacturing capacity needed.  Kenya and many other Africa nations are ready for this launch.

In a second paper, “Putting Renewables and Energy Efficiency to Work,” my students and I made available online an open-source calculator to look at the economic potential of energy efficiency and renewable energy.  What made this particularly exciting and relevant was the fact that we did not use theoretical models, but rather the experience of actual companies.  Next week I will travel to both Southern Sudan and Ethiopia to meet with entrepreneurs like Dan Gizaw to see the status of efforts on the ground today.

Daniel Kammen’s posts appear here and on the Development in a Changing Climate blog at the World Bank, where he is chief technical specialist for renewable energy and energy efficiency. He is an adviser to National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative.