Energy for Growth Hub
Multimedia Jul 06, 2021

Episode #7 Rebekah Shirley: Small Island Nations are Hypervisible & Hyper Invisible

The director of research, data & innovation for WRI Africa talks with Katie & Rose about climate justice…

Better Metrics and Data

The director of research, data & innovation for WRI Africa talks with Katie & Rose about climate justice and building resilient energy infrastructure in small island developing states, why climate finance pledges don’t always translate to reality, obstacles to electrical vehicle uptake in Africa, and Nairobi’s reggae scene.

Dr. Rebekah Shirley is a Visiting Research Fellow at Strathmore University, where she mentors students, designs graduate curricula, and supports local research capacity development. She is also a RAEL Research Affiliate for the University of California at Berkeley, and the Director of Research, Data & Innovation at the World Resources Institute, Africa, where she works to improve access to high-quality data and insights for environmental and human development. Her research explores models for integrated energy planning and innovations for sustainable power system design. She works in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and in Small Island States. Rebekah’s work with energy companies, civil society, and governments has driven energy strategy at the state and national level.

Show Notes

Amped Up

Rebekah Shirley Interview






KATIE:  I’m Katie Auth in Washington.


ROSE:  And I’m Rose Mutiso in London, and this is High Energy Planet, the podcast from the Energy for Growth Hub about new ideas to solve global energy poverty.


KATIE:  On today’s show what does climate justice mean for small island developing (states).  We talk with Rebecca Shirley, director of research, data, and innovation at WRI Africa.  Rebekah has deep roots in the Caribbean and over a decade of experience studying energy systems and policy in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.


ROSE:  We’ll ask Rebekah about the world’s understanding of small island developing states, how to close the gap between global climate finance needs and the policy reality, and whether Nairobi’s reggae scene is worth a rant or a rave.


KATIE:  But first Rose gets amped up about what it will take to support a high renewables future for Africa.


ROSE:  All that coming up on this episode of High Energy Planet.




KATIE:  All right, now it’s time for Amped Up, when we talk about what we can’t stop thinking about right now in the energy and development space.  So Rose, this week you’re obsessing about the path to a high renewable future for Africa.  Tell me more.


ROSE:  So Katie, I might be breaking the rules of Amped Up here, because this is technically…


KATIE:  Uh oh.


ROSE:  …also a plug for a new paper that I co-authored with Hub Fellows Mark Thurber and Murefu Barasa.  But, you know, it’s a topic I’m super-obsessed about so I think it counts.  Is it all right?


KATIE:  Plugging is always allowed, especially when it’s Mark and Murefu, so please go right ahead.


ROSE:  Awesome.  So thanks for letting me peddle my wares on the podcast, Katie.  In all seriousness though, I’m really excited about this new paper we just published in the Electricity Journey.  If you’re interested in electricity there’s one journal that you can find all of your electricity publications in.  And it’s literally called the “Electricity Journal.”  Anyway, so this paper is titled “Wind and Solar in Africa Needs Grids to Match.  And in this paper we try to square this very lofty vision of a high to 100% renewables future for Africa with a more (inaudible) assessment of the hidden barriers to this goal and how we can overcome them.


KATIE:  Awesome.  So before getting into some of those barriers set the scene a little bit by just talking about what’s driving this vision.


ROSE:  Yeah, so there’s kind of, like, everything renewable.  Vision is driven by a mix of factors, including the (Climate Imperative) obviously, as well as a dramatic fall in costs of renewables.  These are all real and justified trends, and so there’s a lot of substance to it.


KATIE:  Okay.  So if you have substance and momentum what’s standing in the way of achieving that vision?


ROSE:  Well, we focus our discussion on the grid, which as we’ve discussed many times on this podcast is the often-overlooked backbone of the power sector.  And our robust grid is particularly crucial when it comes to integrating high shares of variable renewables.  This is of course nothing new, especially for our listeners in the energy space.  It’s a very well-established idea.  But in our paper we try to anchor the discussion around the specific realities of the power ecosystem in most sub-Saharan African countries.


KATIE:  And what is specific about sub-Saharan Africa context?


ROSE:  A number of things.  But, you know, one thing that I think is worth mentioning on the podcast today, because I don’t want to give the whole paper away–go check it out on the Electricity Journal–but, you know–[LAUGHTER] this is just a tease–I think one thing that particularly jumped out is the importance of strengthening the technological, human, and institutional dimensions of grid management.  A lot of people think, okay, renewables (inaudible), where is the tech?  You know, how do we have [quote, unquote] “smart grids?”  It’s more than that.  It’s more than the technology.  And many African countries, Kenya being one example, are really struggling to manage even really modest shares of the area that is getting added to the grid.  To do this successfully you need significant sophistication in your grid management from real-time forecasting of demand and (very) output, to managing dispatchable resources and balancing grid voltage and frequency, and the list goes on and on.  And this is not just a technology or physical infrastructure play; it requires setting up the right human and institutional resources.  We need really strong grid operators, and that regulatory  as well as (a) regulatory context in which all of these different players exist also really, really needs to be strengthened.  And so that was one thing that really jumped out at me is that we’ve really been focused on the tech and kind of physical infrastructure side of how to build grids for a high renewables future.  And to be honest, in many African countries when we see donors talk about renewables, many of them don’t even think about the grid and the supporting infrastructure.  And so already highlighting the grid angle is moving the conversation in a direction that many funders who really are – and both in the DFI space and private investors are really – there’s so much over-investment obviously in the generation space.  And you’ve spoken about this before.  And so we’re trying to go farther than even saying we need to support the infrastructure.  But, like, what does it mean really holistically to have (a) supporting ecosystem?


KATIE:  Yeah, I mean, I think you infamously in a piece called this stuff the “unsexy side of the power sector.”  But hopefully we’re kind of starting to change the narrative CROSSTALK] on that.


ROSE:  We’re bringing sexy back.


KATIE:  We’re bringing sexy back to the grid space, baby.  It’s happening.


ROSE:  By just talking about all of the unsexy things [LAUGHTER].


KATIE:  But hopefully this is starting to change, and I do think there are more and more financiers and funders thinking about this, which is great.  We all look forward to reading your paper.  If you have an energy or development obsession, good or bad, tweet it to us at @EnergyforGrowth and we’ll include it in an upcoming episode.  Coming up we talk with Rebekah Shirley about her research on climate justice and small island developing states.




ROSE:  Rebekah, welcome to High Energy Planet.  So great to have you.


REBEKAH:  Thanks Rose.  Great to be here.


ROSE:  So there aren’t many high-profile Caribbean women in the global energy sector.  You of course are one of them.  So how did you get where you are?


REBEKAH:  There are probably more than you see.  We definitely are out there and there actually are a couple of networks even for women in energy in the Caribbean and small island states in general.  But my story is quite an interesting one.  Grew up in the Caribbean between Jamaica and Trinidad where my parents are from, and then moved to Canada to do my undergraduate degree in environmental sciences, because I knew for sure that’s what I wanted to do.  And then after that I went back home and I was working in environmental management with a local regulator.  And this was around the 2008, 2009 period when there was a global economic crisis and you saw oil prices skyrocket.  And one economy really sailed through that and actually was a boon to the economy, that’s Trinidad.  And then the other part of my life in Jamaica you could see so much struggle with that.  And that became a space for me of saying, you know, within this realm of environment I really want to focus in on energy security and understanding how – what are the tools both technical, policy, economic, etc., that can lead to a more secure future for my communities?  And then I realized as I was pursuing graduate school at U.C. Berkeley in California that, gosh, these question that I thought were small island questions are actually questions that people are asking all over the world.  And so I’ve seen in my career a sort of a transference of those skills and that learning to other spaces as well, which has been just such a blessing to be a part of.


KATIE:  So Rebekah, Rose and I in our role at the hub, we talk a lot about the concept of “climate justice” and what it means for poor countries, not only as it relates to climate itself, but also to energy.  And we know that you’re also passionate about this.  So we’re curious how you personally define climate justice and kind of how you got to that definition.


REBEKAH:  Oh, that’s a really good question, Katie.  And I think there are many different definitions and it’s – there’s so many different logics that underpin climate justice.  But for me I think it’s that recognition.  So there’s the recognition, the distributive, and the procedural justice elements, that those all underpin the way that we think about policy, and decisions not just for energy but for our broader economic systems as they relate to climate.  So for me that in practice looks like ensuring that whether it’s at the global level, at the national level, or at the local level, those concepts are embedded in the strategy that has developed.  And developing that strategy from a justice-oriented point of view is a very complex thing to do.  And I think that it can become challenging because, you know, one of the frustrations Rose was talking about, small island states, one of the frustrations can be when you do propose policy and ideas, even not just (techno-economic) policy but fiscal policy, that can help address some of the more systemic challenges that have created the sort of, you know, situation that we are in where you have countries that are not just physically vulnerable…  I think that in the (early days) of climate change from a small island point of view, we used to focus on the physical vulnerability, right, that we’re in the hurricane belt, and so on and so on.  But really it’s an economic vulnerability.  When you kind of look backwards at how do we get to this point of economic vulnerability there’s a historic land that you have to now think about forward-moving concepts, and policy, and strategy.  And that’s where things can get very sticky and break down.  So, I mean, for small island states it becomes very frustrating when dealing with developed countries that are – there’s sort of an erosion of trust.  You know, commitments are not being met.  Less than two percent of climate finance goes to small islands; fourteen percent goes to (LDCs).  Meanwhile we are (constantly) suggesting potential fiscal policies that can be used, and those oftentimes go ignored or untrialed because they may be politically unfeasible or so on.  And so I think that can be a big challenge is when there is sort of almost a refusal of a balanced agenda in the negotiation around what even the word “priorities” means.  So of course issues like loss, and damage, and so on, we can’t get traction around those issues because the fact that justice and the way that we conceptualize and think about justice is being thought of in so many different ways.


REBEKAH:  I think from an academic point of view–now I’m putting on my academic hat–that’s probably one of the challenges of the space itself is not having, or needing rather, really clear principles of how climate justice translates into, or should translate into fiscal policy and platforms for negotiation and so on and so forth.


ROSE:  When it came to climate change the mainstream narrative around small island developing states was often – it was about this kind of climate catastrophe.  Like, literally the President of the Maldives is holding meetings under water.  And that, as you said, that the loss (inaudible) damage, the crisis, I think that gave to some extent–you know, I would think, and I would love to hear from you– that this narrative had some use, and there was some mileage in giving I guess (Malawian) states that platform, that moral authority.  Is this narrative still useful?  Is it problematic?  Is there a more important narrative?  Like, what is the role that you think that small island states can take in this new phase of the climate negotiations and this new phase of kind of trying to figure out what climate justice means?


REBEKAH:  It’s a great question, Rose.  I think the interesting thing about the Caribbean right now–and small island states more generally, because also you have to look at the Asian Pacific and so on–I heard a phrase of we are both “hyper-visible and hyper-invisible” right now in this moment, right?  So hyper-visible in that everyone – the first talking points about climate – you know, climate disaster, as you said, is islands and (inaudible) and so on.  And we’re – I think even in the general lay-public those impacts are understood, but again, from a more physical point of view rather than an economic point of view.  I reality when you pull back a little bit the curtains you see that one of the challenges, or the main challenge in responding to disasters like hurricanes and cyclones, if we’re talking about – and cyclones if we’re talking about the Asian Pacific, is the economics of it.  It’s very difficult to build resilient infrastructure and to build back resilient infrastructure when you have economies that are dependent on largely primary commodities, right–agriculture, a little bit of tourism and so on.  The economic structures are a major part of that vulnerability and addressing those is therefore not going to be as simple as a loan for resiliency infrastructure.  These are things that go back very far in time, and also as we think forward, that will sort of lead into economic development even moving forward.  When you think about, for instance, the fact that even where we are right now, we have already achieved about a degree Celsius of warming.  So that sea-level rise is already coming.  The change in the Atlantic hurricane season has already started.  We’re already seeing predictions of this one is going to be even worse than last year’s.  And this would be now six consecutive seasons in a row where they’ve become increasingly more intense.  And so we have to think about sort of that long-term arc both backward and forward.  And to answer your question about, well, where do we sit?  What can we do?  I think that addressing the fiscal policy and economics here becomes really, really important.  And I know – I understand that those are very difficult conversations to have for political reasons, but I really do feel like until we resolve some of that we’re going to be in a position where we are looking for market-based solutions to solve problems that were created by those very same markets.


KATIE:  So there are a couple places where good things are happening, and one of those is Jamaica.  You’ve written about how that country has really used policy to drive increased renewable investment and build resilience, and have written about it as somewhat of a bright spot for (SIDS).  So can you talk about a couple things that Jamaica has done differently that maybe other small island states can learn from?


REBEKAH:  Sure, yes.  Recently I did this study with colleagues at (inaudible) Germany and U.C. Berkeley in California, looking at sort of the impact of renewable energy policy in small island states.  And we looked – we focused particularly on the Caribbean.  And what we wanted to do is because sort of every island is trying different things, and there wasn’t yet sort of a comprehensive analysis from a techno-economic point of view to understand the correlations between policy and impact.  So we actually did that sort of analysis using an economic method, a fixed-panel approach – a (fixed-effects)-panel approach.  And what we found is that we (inaudible) scale renewables policies like – or structures like auction mechanisms tend to be very compelling, especially when you’ve got projects on the size of the ones that we’re able to garner in an island like Jamaica.  I think one of the challenges is for smaller island states, how do you sort of amass, given the economies of scale here–and this is where the physicality of the islands really does start to come into play–given that the limited project sizes creating an auction mechanism – we’d have to get creative about how to do that.  But that’s (of the) utility scale.  At the decentralized scale – and I think one of the things we’re seeing in islands right now is this move towards sitting alongside utility scale renewables.  And we’re doing a lot of work in solar, wind, and geothermal in particular in the eastern Caribbean Islands.  We’re seeing also this advance or this penetration of decentralized renewables, which the literature does show is actually very important as well for good reliability and for flexibility.  And mechanisms like (inaudible) (tariffs) and (net)-metering policies have been really successful there.  And so I think that there’s a couple of things that we can identify from the policy toolkit that is available to us that make practical sense to at least advance a renewables power system within island regions.  It doesn’t necessarily address some of the issues that we’ve been talking about in terms of our economies and what economies are based on, whether it’s agriculture and so on, and the need to diversity.  But definitely at the core having a resilient power system is of course one of the main things that we can do to build out an adaptive capacity for climate change.  And so I think that there’s a couple of policies we’re seeing that have been really effective in that (vein).




ROSE:  Coming up, we ask Rebekah about climate finance and what she thinks the prospects are for electric vehicle uptake in Africa.


KATIE:  And we play Rant or Rave to find out her views on clean tech in the Caribbean and Nairobi’s reggae scene.


KATIE:  So Rebekah, we saw that you’d recently tweeted about a Guardian article that reported this gap between what amount of climate finance has been pledged and how much is still unmet, and the fact that many emerging markets are increasingly concerned that they’re never going to get the levels of climate finance that they actually need.  What’s your sense of really what’s at the heart of driving that continued gap and what we can do about it?


REBEKAH:  Definitely.  And this relates to some of the topics that we were talking about before around the eroded trust between what is called “vulnerable countries” and the more developed countries.  So you have commitments that were made like the hundred-billion for adaptation that has very little of that [CROSSTALK]…


KATIE:  Hundred-billion per year.


REBEKAH:  Hundred-billion per year, exactly.  Very little of that has actually been dispersed or delivered.  So clearly we have sort of dwindling – ever-dwindling resources while the intensity of the crisis and the urgency of the crisis is growing.  That’s a paradox that needs to be solved and it gets to the very issues that we were talking about before on diplomacy–the need for systemic change in the way that these conversations themselves are happening, and systemic change to the very financial systems that drive our economies.  I will say though that even where finance has been committed there is a difference between what has been committed and what has been distributed on the ground.  So Kenya is a perfect example of that where we had money coming in from the World Bank under (inaudible).  And less than a million of that today I believe has actually been distributed.  So we also need to talk about and think about capacity on the ground to absorb quickly this finance that’s coming in and distribute it.  And there are many sort of local-scale challenges and (sub) national challenges even at the county level that then become really important to address even as we talk about these global diplomacy topics as well.


ROSE:  You and I wrote an article published on the World Economic Forum website with Katie Hill, our good friend in Nairobi, about the outlook for electric vehicles in sub-Saharan Africa.  So that’s already – time has flown.  I think that was a whole, what, three years ago.  I just remember sitting in Katie’s living room drinking a lot of wine and drafting this.  So in those three years has anything changed since we wrote that piece for you, and what do you think needs to happen to catalyze EV uptake in Africa?


REBEKAH:  Yeah.  Oh, those were good times.  And I hope that we get to write a piece again together soon.  But, you know, so much has changed in that period.  Just focusing on East Africa, which is the space that I can really speak to, you look at Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda, and the number of players that now exist in the electric vehicle space now, compared to even just 2018, it’s been a big shift.  The pledges that have come out from governments on driving EV policy, especially fiscal policy, a lot has changed in just those three years.  And I’m kind of wowed by that even as I’m seeing it right now.  I think definitely there’s a major space here for electric vehicles.  Of course that has to sit within a broader vision for what a sustainable transportation future looks like for these – for our cities, and sort of the continuum of cities, right?  Because these are not just isolated cities in themselves, they’re all connected.  And so even thinking about – when I think about East Africa there’s almost sort of a continuum of urban space across this region that we kind of need to be thinking about almost changing the bounds of what we mean by “urban transportation” and so on.  But anyway, I think there’s a big space for EVs to play in terms of delivering on our goals for healthier and more sustainable communities.  And also touching on the topic that we were talking about before around demand and the need for sort of demand sopping up the resources…




REBEKAH:  …that we do have on the (grid) and bringing down the prices for everyone, there’s an opportunity there as well.  Of course in order to do that there’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be put in place.  There’s a lot of analysis that needs to be done, both on the technical side – on the techno-economic side, on the grid side and so on, but also on the socio-economic side and how to ensure that, for instance, fiscal policy if there are going to be subsidies for (inaudible), how do we ensure that those subsidies are reaching the communities that need them?  How do we ensure that we are not creating an East African dependency on foreign goods and manufactured products and actually stimulating local sectors to grow?  So I think that even as there is sort of a lot of momentum right now around electric vehicles, this might just be bias of an academic, but I’m also, like, there’s so much that we need to kind of think about as we’re doing this to ensure that we’re doing it in a sustainable way.  So that’s some of the research that I work on right now.


KATIE:  So Rebekah, I think one of the through lines in all of your responses to these questions have been this really important point about seeing energy not just as a solution in itself but really as a lever for a much broader transformative change across economies, and across much wider spectrums of activity.  And I’m curious as we start to talk more and more about the [quote, unquote] “energy transition,” and powering these transitions across very different economies, what’s maybe the one thing that you think stakeholders should be focusing on to ensure that energy transitions are actually transformative and not just about connecting people to power, but about bigger and better things?


REBEKAH:  One thing, huh? [LAUGHTER]


KATIE:  I had to force you to narrow it down.


REBEKAH:  No – no – no, it’s great.  I think that the one thing that I would say – we’re talking about transitions that will be happening across different economies, across different scales, across – and that will involve stakeholders that are crossing disciplinary bounds and (sectoral) bounds.  So there’s a lot that’s going on.  I think the one thing that I would say honestly, Katie, is creating spaces and increasing the visibility of local perspectives.  I think that’s really going to be key to transitions that are designed in a way that is just, and sustainable, and appropriate for local contexts.  We just need more local perspective as part of these conversations; there’s not enough.




KATIE:  Okay Rebekah, so now it’s time to play a game we call “Rant or Rave.”  We’re going to give you a word or a short term and you have to go on a brief rant or a rave about it.  Ready?


REBEKAH:  Sure, yes.  This is what I do in my free time. [LAUGHTER]


KATIE:  Okay [LAUGHTER].  Okay, rant or rave: Nairobi’s reggae scene?


REBEKAH:  Rave, but there’s so much reggae on the scene.  I’m excited about – every time I step into a matatu or anything like that they’re jamming reggae.  When I first got here I thought that that – like, whenever it happened I’d be, like, oh my God, they’re playing a reggae song.  Let me turn on my phone and record for my family.  And then I realized, oh, it’s all reggae all day here.  So I love that.  I love the reggae scene here, it’s amazing.  And there’s some local reggae that’s actually really great, too.


KATIE:  That’s awesome.


ROSE:  Reggae is really, really big in Kenya.  I’ve never gotten into it, but getting there – getting there.  I’ll [CROSSTALK] with you.


REBEKAH:  I’ll work on it – I will work on that…


ROSE:  Yeah.


REBEKAH:  …make that a personal mission.


ROSE:  Okay [LAUGHTER].  All right, rant or rave: wind turbines in the Caribbean?


REBEKAH:  Rave because we were some of the – like, the Wigton wind farm in Jamaica was sort of revolutionary, right?  Like, it really changed the game.  So rave, yes, we’ve done some good work there.


KATIE:  And then this one is quite personal I think.  Rant or rave: Kenyan Caribbean weddings?


REBEKAH:  [LAUGHTER] Being a connoisseur myself of the kind, those are an amazing blast – a meeting of distant relatives.  They are beautiful, spiritual, emotional, everything.  A complete rave.


ROSE:  And it turns out if you’re taking a planeload full of people from Nairobi to the Caribbean you get a discount from Kenya Airways.  So pro trip.


REBEKAH:  They say that you do.  If you actually do that we’ll discuss that offline [LAUGHTER].


ROSE:  Oh no.  Oh Kenya Airways, how could they?


REBEKAH:  But you’re known once you get into the Caribbean.  The whole busload, the whole [CROSSTALK]…


ROSE:  You’re a known quantity.


REBEKAH:  …is known, yes. [LAUGHTER] Local celebrities.


ROSE:  Okay, so this is somewhat controversial–don’t offend anyone if you can.  So if you had to pick one, which is better–East African beaches or Caribbean beaches?


REBEKAH:  Oh, come now.  Oh my [LAUGHTER].


KATIE:  Be honest.


REBEKAH:  Oh, I think that Carib- there’s just…




REBEKAH:  …nothing like that happy blue beautiful bays of Caribbean beaches.  East African beaches are exotic and unique in an entirely different way.  They’re just, like, these long beautiful stretches of white sand that’s…  They’re sort of two completely different types of beach.  So let me say equal but different – equal but different.




KATIE:  Rebekah, thank you so much for joining us, it’s been an awesome pleasure to have you with us on High Energy Planet.


REBEKAH:  My pleasure to be part of the conversation, and I’m such big fans of both of you, so thank you for having me.


ROSE:  Thank you.


KATIE:  Same here.  Thanks Rebekah.




ROSE:  So that’s it for today’s show.  High Energy Planet is a production of the Energy for Growth Hub, matching policymakers with evidence-based pathways to a high-energy future for everyone.  Find out more at and tweet your questions and thoughts to us at @EnergyforGrowth.


KATIE:  If you liked today’s episode be sure to rate and rank the podcast and tell a friend about us.  Bob Lalasz is our executive producer, (Gray Johnson) is our senior producer.  Join us next time for more High Energy Planet.