Adnan Z. Amin, Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency* and initiator of a series of world conferences on off-grid and minigrid electrification, sees our world on the cusp of unprecedented energy transformation. Not only will the use of renewables for reliable, clean electricity contribute to universal access to power, it may also help keep the lid on climate change. All the while, cooperative efforts will propel entrepreneurs, technology innovators, multinational industry, development organizations, rulemaking bodies, and government representatives toward success in achieving common renewable goals for world energy.
Mr. Amin should know. He spent many years in New York at the UN digesting international priorities, policies, and financing and regulatory tools and has extensive knowledge of both business models and renewable technology.
In an interview at the recent International Off-Grid Renewable Energy Conference in Manila, I asked the Director-General to summarize his primary message to key stakeholders in the process. His response could be taken as a direction for all who participate in the business of implementing renewable energy.
As a society, we need to get away from the idea that renewable power (and concomitant storage and transmission) belong only to an “alternative” niche in the overall energy picture, Amin says. The technology is now demonstrated. It has proven to be modern and reliable. It has also achieved cost-competitiveness, even lower prices, in many of its forms and is rapidly moving toward economic parity in others. Amin states:
“Too often in the past, the discussion about renewables has also been bifurcated between on- and off-grid modalities. What’s become clear here is that given the nature of world energy demands, you’re going to need both, as well as solutions in between.”
Off-grid methods clearly benefit residents of isolated areas such as islands and remote communities—those which IOREC meetings have specifically addressed. Extending existing grids can actually increase the potential of renewables by providing diversity and flexible timing of power sources. The great potential of minigrids lies in situations where grid extension proves too expensive. Here the picture has improved considerably, with minigrids reaching toward a positive, and eventually enriching, situation.
One size does not fit all, Amin says. A successful approach will incorporate generation and storage from both broad strokes and fine, organically, not mechanistically as in the past. IRENA’s purpose is to maximize growth all sides of the energy equation.
Within that goal, the organization is attacking barriers that have traditionally held up the emerging business of off-grid and minigrid renewables. Two years ago, the organization started its off-grid series of world energy conferences in Ghana. Amin contrasts the African meeting with the recent doings in Manila. Unfortunately, Africa has to start from a somewhat lower base than southeast Asia. Not surprisingly, Amin found more unconventional discussions and a higher appetite for risk there.
The gathering in Manila has had tremendous participation from all sectors interested in renewables, the Director-General states (photo from interview). It has focused much more on financing. The Asian Development Bank and its dynamic vice president, Wencai Zhang, who opened the conference, have contributed greatly here. In this Asian experience two years on, IRENA participants have been “quite clear” on the tech end and have focused on creating incentives for investment and using financial and regulatory tools to reduce capital costs. The expectation is “exponential growth.”
“When IRENA started,” Amin adds, “we thought it was best for us to focus on the business, economic, and social sides of renewables. Stressing the benefits has kept us removed from political controversy. The last thing anyone needs is to engage in political football. Governments have seen this focus as very positive. Rather than gatecrashing a party, it’s best to be invited.”
I ask Mr. Amin what he feels IRENA would contribute to the international dialogue on climate change, in particular the crucial UNFCCC meeting in Paris in 2015. He responds that IRENA has already provided the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with an important analytical tool for world energy, the most comprehensive database ever on the costs of renewable technologies. Its use in supplying financial information over different scenarios has given the UN’s fifth periodic assessment of climate change, released during the past year, a very strong basis for international decisionmaking.
The situation has changed a bit now that the IPCC has recommended tripling the share of zero- and low-carbon energy from renewables by the year 2050.
The IRENA roadmap shows how to double the global renewable energy share between now and 2030. Based on a unique analysis of 26 leading economies, IRENA shows which technologies can make a difference, which countries have the largest potential, and what needs to be done. Doubling is feasible and affordable, the roadmap has found. Millions of lives can be saved through better air quality, greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by nearly 9 gigatons per year, a million jobs can be created worldwide, and economic security will grow as needed.
At a minimum, IRENA’s roadmap doubles the renewable share in total final energy to 36% by 2030, and with cost neutrality as well. “We can even go beyond the doubling target by mainstreaming renewables,” says Amin, but simply attaining it will provide our most realistic chance of keeping the world under a 450 ppm carbon dioxide threshold by 2100.“This is a compelling narrative that has caught the imagination of many people,” he adds.
My final question recalls Amin’s interaction during the opening remarks with Ernesto Macias, President of the cosponsoring Alliance for Rural Electrification. The two have been collaborating on renewables for over 20 years, and their longtime friendship shows. I also draw on the context of Earth Day 1, when the nascent environmental movement envisioned a better, cleaner world, a phenomenon that has not come true, despite achieving some remedial goals. With energy pressures on the environment worsening, what does 2030 really look like for world cooperation and improvement? The DG takes a minute to reply.
“We are living through a period of unprecedented change brought on by extremely disruptive megatrends. The geographical, economic, and demographic changes the world is undergoing now are transformative. These include urban growth, changes in energy demand, and accelerations in the rate of technological change, all accompanied by risks.
If we take digital mobile communications as a bellwether for our current ability to adapt, we see from its attainment of 90% global use in just 15 years—almost universal, even in areas unserved by electric power—that we’re at a moment of not only great risk, but also of great opportunity. We at IRENA believe that the rate of technological development for renewables is moving so fast that we have reached a tipping point. Things will work out very differently, very soon.”
Amin backs up this statement with testimonials (1) to the United States as a technological and economic dynamo, despite luddite reactions in some quarters, and (2) to developing countries for their speed in embracing change. Together, IRENA’s collaborators are forming what appears to be the most inclusive, apolitical, and intrinsically fair blueprint for the future of renewable world energy. Its success has critical importance in Asia, Africa, island states, and rural communities of both developing and developed nations, as well as implications for the continuance of a civilized world.
We’ll hear more from IRENA soon, I expect.
For more on the directions and substance of IOREC 2014, see:
*Full Disclosure: My travel and accommodation at IOREC were covered by IRENA.
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