Cédric Philibert: “Our various scenarios all show a big future for renewables.”

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The Beam interview series, edition 16: Cédric Philibert

To lighten up your week and give you even more energizing thoughts, we publish interviews from our partner The Beam twice a week.

The Beam takes a modern perspective on the energy transition, interviewing inspirational people from around the world that shape our sustainable energy future.

This week, Anne-Sophie Garrigou, journalist at The Beam, interviewed Cédric Philibert, a former science journalist who joined the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 2000, following a tenure at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Here, Cédric Philibert talks about his work at the IEA and his perspective on the future of renewables.

The IEA was created in 1974. What got you interested in renewable energies before they became mainstream?

Renewable energy technologies are a crucial part of a portfolio of options that are needed for achieving a secure and sustainable energy mix. So the IEA has indeed long been interested in renewable energy.

Initial IEA work on renewables mainly focused on monitoring and supporting technology research and development, notably through what are now known as the IEA Technology Collaboration Programmes, overseen by the IEA Renewable Energy Working Party. These independent groups, now comprising more than 6,000 experts, enable governments and industries from around the world to lead programmes and projects on a wide range of energy technologies and related issues, including renewable energy.

In 2005 the Gleneagles Group of 8 summit directed the IEA to significantly expand its work in renewables, specifically asking it to expand into scenario modelling, assessment of policies, and analysis of market integration issues. One result is that the IEA, in its flagship publication World Energy Outlook (WEO) and another publication, Energy Technology Perspectives, has introduced low-carbon scenarios showing how policies can most effectively increase renewables’ share of the energy mix to 2040 and beyond.

But we do not look just at the long term. In July 2012, the IEA introduced its Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report, an annual analysis of recent global trends plus the outlook looking forward, much as similar titles from the Agency do for oil, gas, coal and more recently energy efficiency.

Finally, the IEA continues to work extensively with researchers and others pushing forward renewables, both market-tested systems like solar photovoltaics and others, like wave energy, through the Technology Collaboration Programmes. For instance, one area we focus on is how renewable energy can be best incorporated into electrical grids to provide a secure supply even though the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine.

Are you optimistic about the growth prospects of renewable energy? Energy Technology Perspectives notes that in particular China and the emerging economies are doing more than expected, but progress in the industrialized world was disappointing. Can you elaborate on this?

Indeed we see a shift towards deployment in emerging economies that now represents two-thirds of energy investment in renewables. This results primarily from growing energy demand, notably in Asia. Renewables, in particular onshore wind power and solar photovoltaics, together with already established hydropower technologies, offer options for rapid deployment at costs that in most places are competitive with alternatives.

In industrialized countries the pace of deployment is more constrained as the economy is already supplied; incumbents are seeing shrinkage in the rate of utilization of their existing assets.

Still, in both parts of the world, consistent policy is critical to facilitate the transition to a low-carbon energy system. Even when renewables produce electricity more cheaply than fossil fuels, renewable power plants are more capital intensive and therefore need a framework that guarantees sufficient returns on investment in the long run. “Spot” wholesale markets can hardly support decarbonization, so policy makers should not conclude from renewables’ new competitiveness that there is no need for policy intervention. In countries where there is no real electricity market — where there is a vertically integrated, monopolistic utility — there is also often the need for a strong policy intervention to allow renewable electricity to enter the grid — and sometimes to strengthen or extend the grids.

But, yes, we are positive about the growth prospects for renewable energy, especially in the field of electricity, provided governments maintain and develop market and policy frameworks that are conducive to investments. Relying on IEA-generated data as well as information from government departments and more than 100 companies and organisations, the most recent edition of our Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report sees the share of renewable energy in global power generation rising to above 26% by 2020 — or more than today’s combined electricity demand of China, India and Brazil. That’s up from 18% in 2005 and 22% in 2013 — a remarkable shift in a very limited period of time. Renewables other than hydropower would see their share of that 26% growing from 10% in 2005 to 37% by 2020, perhaps even more.

However, prospects for renewable heat and transport are less optimistic. They are more directly facing the threat of an extended period of low-priced fossil fuels. Policy makers must give these sectors much greater attention.

What are your hopes for the development of renewables in the future?

Our various scenarios all show a big future for renewables. In the next five years they will represent two-thirds of net additions to power capacity worldwide. By 2050, if we are serious about mitigating climate change, they would generate 65% to 80% of the world’s electricity. We have even considered greater levels of ambition, for example in our 2011 publication Solar Energy Perspectives, which laid out a pathway for renewables to power most — if not 100% — of the global economy. They would do so by generating the lion’s share of electricity. Along with some other forms of renewables such as solar heat or biofuel, that power would then largely substitute for fossil fuel use in heat and transport.

But while we have the resources and the required technologies, and even as they continue to improve, such a “sunny” scenario will happen only with the right policy as well as trust from industry and finance and the support of the population.

Read the entire interview here.

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The Beam Magazine is an independent climate solutions and climate action magazine. It tells about the most exciting solutions, makes a concrete contribution to eliminating climate injustices and preserving this planet for all of us in its diversity and beauty. Our cross-country team of editors works with a network of 150 local journalists in 50 countries talking to change makers and communities. THE BEAM is published in Berlin and distributed in nearly 1,000 publicly accessible locations, to companies, organizations and individuals in 40 countries across the world powered by FairPlanet.

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