The global push for cleaner energy
As costs of building solar power plants and wind farms fall, renewable energy projects are helping in the move towards a lower-carbon future. That is the goal of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental group which supports 158 member countries to create lower-carbon economies - through biofuels, geothermal energy, hydropower, solar and wind energy. Marcus George meets its Director-General, Adnan Z. Amin.
How is the renewable energy industry looking now?
It's a really exciting time. The transition towards renewables is gaining momentum because costs have fallen and there is greater understanding about the benefits.
There is now a business case for renewables which wasn't there before.
We have seen that investing in low-carbon energy generation doesn't have to limit people's use of energy.
Renewables give us the possibility to grow and be sustainable. Countries can drive economic and employment growth while bringing down carbon emissions.
Take Denmark where the energy transition began over a decade ago. Between 2000 and 2014 it saw 8% growth in real GDP together with a 30% reduction in emissions, showing a decoupling of economic growth and CO2 emissions.
Denmark is making progress in its target to meet all its energy needs with renewables by 2050. And developing a renewable project can be quicker than a coal plant.
These factors have helped renewable energy capacity to boom recently. IRENA has calculated that in 2017 alone, 167 gigawatts (GW) of renewable capacity was added globally, increasing the world's renewable generation capacity to 2,179 GW.
China alone installed more than 50 GW of solar in 2017 accounting for 68 per cent of global solar capacity additions last year.
Where is renewable energy currently expanding?
A few years ago, Europe was leading the pack. Outside Europe and the USA, the cost of borrowing money for renewable projects was considerable.
This has changed dramatically. Today the bulk of new projects are in emerging economies, such as China and India. The latter aims to install 175 GW of renewables capacity by 2022.
More broadly, 64% of total additions last year were in Asia and the continent now accounts for more than 40% of global renewable generation capacity.
Morocco is aiming to generate just over half of its energy from renewables by 2030.
Around 20% will come from solar and the same from wind farms. Already significant, hydroelectric power will contribute about 12%.
Given Morocco's current dependence on imports of coal and electricity – via subsea link from Spain – this target will have financial benefits too.
"We couldn't be a global policeman telling countries what to do," Amin tells Inside Energy in Abu Dhabi
Why is it important to develop off-grid power - power provided by mini-grids?
I’m from Kenya. Like many developing countries, much of Kenya's rural population has little or no access to electricity. That limits productivity and impacts health and education.
Many developing countries can’t afford to extend their main electricity grids to remote rural areas. But small-scale renewable electricity technologies can provide electricity at low cost, even hybrid ones which combine solar panels with generators run on conventional fuels, such as diesel or gasoline.
A small amount of electricity – to power lighting, a few appliances and to charge a mobile phone – can transform lives. Energy statistics aren’t fully capturing what is happening across Africa.
So, we looked at trade statistics and we saw that in recent years, tens of millions of components to generate solar power have been imported into African countries to meet people's needs.
What about small-scale electricity generation in the developed world? What impact is that having?
Through small-scale renewables and smart-metering, residents in developed countries are increasingly consumers and producers of electricity, or “prosumers” as some organisations describe them.
In Germany, hundreds of thousands of people are now selling some of the power they produce back to the utility company. It is happening in many developed countries.
Prosumers help to lower carbon emissions. The trend is growing and smart systems are now developing in several places around the world, including in Dubai – in the UAE – and in Oman.
In developing countries, small-scale solar panels are increasingly used to provide some power in rural areas where there is no access to grid electricity
What about sectors requiring extreme heat or power and difficult to electrify, such as transport or heavy industry? Can renewables help?
Transport is a real challenge but technologies are improving, specifically in electric motors and battery storage.
Over the last six years, we’ve seen a 73% decrease in battery costs that consumers pay. IRENA estimates a further 60% cost decrease over the next decade.
In our view, we’ll see rapid adoption of electric vehicles through lower costs, more innovation and increased ranges.
Freight, which relies on diesel, is still a challenge. There will be advances in biofuels, especially in second-generation biofuels – produced from residual crop waste – and I expect their use and applications to grow.
We’re already seeing biofuels which emit less carbon making an impact and reducing dependence on conventional diesel.
Intensive industry – such as iron and steel, cement and petrochemicals – represents a significant share of emissions globally and is among the most difficult to decarbonise.
A combination of biofuels, electrification of processes and hydrogen produced from renewables could help.
Biomass could reduce reliance on current feedstock fuels, but more efforts are needed to ensure they are affordable and reliable.
Electrification is possible for some industrial processes, not for others. Beyond that, hydrogen produced from renewable electricity could help to extend the benefits solar and wind power into challenging sectors like heavy industry.
We could also harness more geothermal energy – the heat produced by the Earth itself.
Currently, the world uses just 6% of the potential and we estimate there is 300GW of capacity that can be harnessed to help countries with industrial heating and other such uses.
It’s a fast-growing sector and we have created the geothermal alliance, bringing together countries, companies, academia and scientific institutions.
China is now learning from Iceland – which has plenty of geothermal resources – to help develop geothermal power and district heating and cut down on using coal as a fuel. Icelandic parties are advising and helping to develop and operate projects.
IRENA estimates that 10 million people are working in the renewables industry worldwide
How significant are renewables in creating employment opportunities?
Renewable energy has become a major industry. According to IRENA's annual jobs report, in the USA renewables employ around 300,000 people.
Compare that to the coal industry there, which employs 50,000 people. Worldwide, IRENA estimates that 10 million people are working in the renewables industry. That will increase significantly in the years to come.
Since the last financial crisis in 2008-09, we've seen an era of low-economic growth. In many countries, the recovery has largely been jobless. That’s why policymakers welcome investments in infrastructure that generate employment.
For instance, Saudi Arabia’s planned $50bn investment in renewables is not just about energy but also creating thousands of jobs and boosting the economy.
In Morocco, renewable energy projects have improved economic prospects in areas where jobs are most needed.
What were the main challenges in creating IRENA?
Initially there was uncertainty about how IRENA would promote renewables. It was clear that we couldn’t be a global policeman wagging a finger, telling countries what to do.
We needed to develop strong arguments about the benefits of generating lower-carbon energy.
China wasn’t initially a member, mainly due to concerns that IRENA might oppose its hydropower projects for environmental reasons.
I made many visits to Beijing to allay those concerns. Today, China is one of our most active members.
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