Originally published on Sustainnovate.
[Update: I’ve changed the video to a shorter video that just includes questions I posed and a couple that friends posed.]
I had the great pleasure of participating in a long roundtable interview with IRENA Director General Adnan Z. Amin during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week. Above is a video of the discussion, and below are some key summary points.
Adnan started out by talking about the tremendous success of COP21 in Paris, which he called a game changer, in part due to how inclusive the agreement was. This carried over into the IRENA general assembly, which brings together a large number of countries.
Interestingly, Adnan said the organization would be focusing more on hydropower going forward. Naturally, he also highlighted again that renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind are already mature, and while some focus on R&D is always helpful, renewables are competitive today.
I started off the questioning by commenting on what I think is now the #1 barrier to faster renewable energy and electric vehicle adoption — simply lack of awareness and experience with the technologies — and then asking Adnan what he thought were the three key points that need to get out to the public much more broadly.
The first thing he noted was that we need to help the public to understand that the price declines of renewables are much more important than the price declines of oil. As part of that, he said oil was “already irrelevant” when it comes to electricity generation, since renewables were already cheaper and that’s not going to change.
#2, he said, was that the constant misinformative bad-talking of renewables from incumbent industries — regarding variability, the system costs of renewables, etc. — needed to be corrected and put in the grave. Adnan highlighted a story in Germany that already shows in the real world how incorrect these anti-renewables myths are.
The third thing was: “If we are going to maintain the ambition of staying under 2°C, it cannot be done without a major move to renewables investment.”
Great list, naturally!
Clint Wilder of CleanEdge had the next question and followed up on a top wish of Adnan as expressed in a World Future Energy Summit panel: for people to “eliminate bureaucracy in the way around multilateral finance.” Adnan expounds on that in the video.
Afterward, I politely left ample time for someone else to ask a question, but with a bit of a pause a jumped in with my second. I pulled out a number from the IRENA report we were handed, that renewable energy capacity had seen an 85% growth in the past 10 years, and asked Adnan’s opinion for a hopeful but realistic projection for growth in the next 10 years. He highlighted that the growth in different countries will be quite different due to different policy, geographical, and economic conditions, but overall said that they expect the rate of growth to possibly even double.
Jumping off of that, I brought up another comment Adnan had made on a panel earlier in the conference: that the top US solar company saw its stock price rise ~3% following the COP21 agreement, but 30% following the extension of the US solar investment tax credit (ITC) at the end of the year, with the point being that domestic policy has much more direct impact than international policy. I was curious and asked Adnan about which particular countries IRENA was focused on because of their potential. Adnan listed (and discussed) China and India — saying that they are seeing “rates of deployment that we haven’t seen anywhere else” — as well as countries across Africa and Latin America (naming Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil, as examples). In summary, “it’s, in general, emerging economies, but the ones that have the higher growth in demand and higher rates of industrialization have the bigger opportunities.”
Ian Clover of pv magazine followed that with the comment that one of the bigger risks following COP21 are that “some of the positive words are not turned into tangible actions,” and asked if MENA countries shouldn’t be setting peaking dates for carbon emissions, like China has done. Adnan said it made sense for big emitters to set peaking dates, and said it would be hard for smaller developing countries to do so in the short term, but expects it will happen in the long term. Interesting comments, questions, and more comments regarding Africa and India followed.
Hydropower was revisited as well, and Adnan noted how climate change was already having an impact on hydropower availability — which has been a challenge in California, Africa, and elsewhere already. Prompted by another questioner about the relationship between renewable energy and sustainable development goals (SDGs), Adnan delved into these matters as well, noting the obvious — clean, renewable energy is a critical cornerstone of the SDGs.
After giving others some time to ask those questions, I jumped back by asking Adnan what he thought about the importance of 100% renewable energy goals. As I noted in the question setup, at the Renewable Cities Global Learning Forum in Vancouver last year (which I was heavily involved in), one participant commented at the end that they thought “100% renewable energy” goals were a bit extreme at the beginning of the conference, but transitioned by the end to see them as important because of the momentum they build in people’s enthusiasm and ideas. I then asked Adnan what he thought about such goals, highlighting that IRENA had become a partner of the RE100 campaign.
Adnan stated that the goals depend on the setting. With RE100, it’s a corporate setting, so it makes a lot of sense and even makes financial business sense. “It certain cities, it’s also achievable,” he added (noting Vancouver and Sydney) but added that many countries can’t easily chart a path to 100% renewable energy. He wasn’t bullish on that, saying that it adds uncertainty and provides a mixed message. But he highlighted IRENA’s work creating REmap reports for many countries to help them map out a much stronger transition to a renewable energy future.
As you might have guessed I’d do, I brought up electric transport as well, since that is critical to 100% renewable energy (not just 100% renewable electricity). I’m happy IRENA focuses quite a bit on electric transport, and Adnan talked a bit about that matter, highlighting it as a key and stating that advanced biofuels have largely been “put on the backburner” now.
Eager to get more tips from such an expert, I asked Adnan for tips IRENA is providing for countries to move more quickly to electric mobility. I love Adnan’s answers in panel after panel and question after question, and this was one of those cases. After talking a bit about electric mobility’s inherent efficiency and cleantech advantage, he highlighted our socialization in cultures where gasoline cars (cars with internal combustion engines) are everywhere, and how that sets up a mindset that is very hard to break away from… particularly without real-world experience with an electric car. He praised the Zayed Future Energy Prize, and said “giving the prize to BYD is a big signal.” BYD, if you aren’t aware, is a leading manufacturer of both electric cars and electric buses. Adnan went on to highlight the move in most large automakers to put a lot of R&D into electric vehicles, and announce large targets for electrifying their lineups.
As just about any conversation around electric vehicles goes, this one ended up steering toward the wonderful driving experience they offer, and especially that Teslas offer. I noted Akon’s decision to cut back from 28 cars to just 4 — 4 Teslas. And I also found out that a Tesla Model S I saw at Emirates Palace a couple days prior belonged to the Chairman of Masdar, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber.
Adnan also discussed benefits of hydropower, the role of natural gas, nuclear power, and South Africa’s power plans. Overall, it was a very informative and interesting talk, nothing less than I’d expect from Adnan, who seems to always be on his game.
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