NEW YORK CITY – Joined by heads of state, government ministers, business leaders and ‘last-mile’ energy entrepreneurs, Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) hosted a provocative discussion last week on Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7) at the UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development. The event, co-sponsored by the governments of Ethiopia, Senegal and the United Kingdom, was organized to align with the HLPF’s formal review this year of progress on SDG7.

The event, “SDG7: Leaving No One Behind,” included diverse speakers who shared successes and challenges in delivering affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy to vulnerable populations living in Asia, Africa and other developing regions. All agreed that sustainable energy is essential to lifting people’s lives and advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Energy is the key to leaving no one behind,” said Amina J. Mohammed, UN Deputy Secretary-General. “Access to cleaner energy benefits health by reducing risks from indoor air pollution and enabling access to clean water and refrigeration. It also powers improved medical facilities, especially in rural areas, enabling safe storage of medicines and vaccines.”

Sweden Environment Minister Karolina Skog echoed the point, calling for a global energy system “based on a combination of renewable energy sources, decentralized and small-scale solutions, increased grid distribution capacity and energy efficiency measures.” She also emphasized “equal access to energy between men and women and promoting women’s participation and leadership in the energy sector.”

The backdrop to the session was the recent Tracking SDG7: The Energy Progress Report showing that global progress on key SDG7 goals isn’t moving fast enough to achieve 2030 objectives. Speakers were especially concerned about the one billion people who still lack access to electricity and three billion who lack access to clean cooking fuels and technologies.

“There are so many examples of what is beginning to work (on SDG7) and we should celebrate that, but the speed and scale is still, for the moment, elusive,” said Rachel Kyte, CEO and Special Representative to the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All, in opening the discussion.

Mohammed said women and girls suffer the most from lack of energy access and she saw this first-hand during a recent visit to West Africa’s Sahel region, where energy poverty, drought and local extremist groups are creating perilous risks for women and girls when they are collecting firewood and water. She also noted that over 291 million children globally are going to primary schools without any electricity.

Still, the speakers expressed optimism about recent SDG7 gains, especially in countries that have made sustainable energy a political priority, backed with supportive policy frameworks and integrated planning. A handful of countries in Africa, Asia and South America received praise for closing their electricity access gaps with a bigger emphasis on renewable energy solutions.

“The question is not one of ‘what to do?’ but one of what is Kenya, Chile and Bangladesh doing that we could replicate and learn from,” Mohammed said. “There are important lessons from countries that could lead the way.”

Government leaders from Togo, Saint Lucia and Palau discussed their own efforts to achieve universal energy access goals.

“We have no other choice but to pursue renewable energy,” said Tommy E. Remengesau Jr., President of Palau, which has set a target of producing 45 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025. He stressed the importance of public/private partnerships and private sector support in achieving its goal.

 “If you don’t put significant focus on energy, you cannot boost the economy and encourage development,” said Togo Prime Minister Komi Selom Klassou. Togo has doubled electricity access in the past 10 years, to 38 percent, and hopes to hit 50 percent by 2020. “In order to achieve universal energy access by 2030, we need to focus on renewable energy sources,” he added.

Saint Lucia has also set ambitious goals to use more renewable energy and less fossil fuels. Dr. Gale Rigobert, Minister of Education, Innovation, Gender Relations and Sustainable Development, said a key priority is installing solar power at the island’s schools. In addition to providing reliable power and improving the learning environment, she said, solar-powered schools provide emergency shelters when extreme weather knocks out electric grid service.

The discussion also centered on successful entrepreneurs who are bringing sustainable energy to some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Ajaita Shah, CEO of Frontier Markets, has put women at the center of her business model, which sells solar-based lighting and other appliances in rural areas of India.

“In India, 270 million people do not have access to 24/7 power and women are at the center of that challenge,” said Shah, who has built a network of more than 1,000 women, known as Solar Sahelis, who have helped over 400,000 households access solar-powered electricity.

Financing hurdles for women, however, are impeding far bigger growth, she said.

“Banks have capital and intent, but they aren’t structured to provide low interest loans to women without collateral or credit history,” Shah said. “Investment vehicles also have capital, but they aren’t ready to take the risk for investing in women who might face larger challenges or longer time to help households adopt to electricity sustainably.”

Reykjavik Energy is also pushing women’s empowerment in its business model. In the past 10 years, it has doubled women representation in management positions, to 51 percent, and eliminated gender pay gaps. “Even companies in the power sector which are traditionally very male dominated can change very quickly,” Reykjavik Energy CEO Bjarni Bjarnason said, noting that the company is stronger than ever financially.