Sunburst: January 2020
100% Renewable Energy White Paper Rolled Out at High-Level IRENA Event
ISES Board member Monica Oliphant and I made the long journey to Abu Dhabi three weeks ago (10 to 15 January) to attend the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA’s) 10th Annual General Assembly, and to participate in a number of side events.
IRENA has truly come of age since its creation a decade and a half ago. The Agency has grown in stature significantly under the impressive 10-year leadership of Director General Adnan Amin, who, because of term limits, stepped aside last year and handed the reins over to Francesco de Camera. Director General de Camera led his first General Assembly at the 10th gathering, and demonstrated ample evidence that IRENA will continue to offer meaningful support to its member countries who are developing their own renewable energy (RE) programs, and to the community at large, with high-value and thoughtful reports covering a multitude of topics related to RE development.
IRENA’s Coalition for Action was created five years ago to promote the wider and faster uptake of renewable energies. The Coalition is headed up at IRENA HQ by Stephanie Weckend, with support from Emma Aborg, Anindya Bhagirath, Kelly Tai, and Ludovico Gandolfi. At the 9th General Assembly in January 2019 the Coalition published a white paper titled “Towards 100% Renewable Energy: Status, Trends and Lessons Learned”, which was developed by one of the Working Groups within the Coalition, the Towards 100% RE Working Group. This group was led by ISES Member Rainer Hinrichs-Rahlwes, and Monica and I provided important contributions to this paper.
This year Rainer and I served as co-Chairs of this Working Group and produced a second white paper, which can be downloaded here, titled “Towards 100% Renewable Energy: Utilities in Transition”. In this paper the Group interviewed a number of utilities around the world that have made commitments to achieving a 100% renewable energy supply in the power sector to help meet local, regional or national targets.
Monica was involved in the South Australia case study, and I worked on case studies for the City of Aspen, Colorado and the U.S. state of Hawaii. The paper includes an overview of the status and trends of 100% RE commitments by mapping RE targets at national and regional levels. But the big focus of this paper is to offer the perspectives of utilities operating in regions where government policies include 100% RE targets. The paper was distributed at a Public-Private dialogue which Monica and I both attended, on 10 January immediately before the start of the 10th General Assembly. Rainer served on a panel discussing the results of the study.
The case studies make clear that the ability to integrate variable renewable energy into the grid has achieved technological maturity in many cases, driven also by the low levelized cost of renewable energy supply, favorable policies, and digitalization and flexibility in grid operations. But here I want to focus on another success factor that many utilities took special care to highlight in their interviews: the role that public education and acceptance plays in a successful RE transformation. Without this, several of the utilities believed they could not have achieved success; certainly not within the time frame covered by the case studies.
The growing populist movement around the world is often attributed in part to the frustrations of the working class, who feel that their job security and job benefits are being compromised by factors such as globalization, immigration, and policies at national and local efforts to mitigate the consequences of climate change. Certainly on this latter point, following speeches I have given on the urgency to achieve 100% renewables in order to drop global carbon emissions to levels that ensure global warming does not exceed 1.5 0C, I am often asked: “How do we protect the working class whose livelihood is dependent on jobs related to fossil energy use from the disruptions expected by the transformation? And, if we transform our energy system in an urgent manner, what do we do about the massive fossil-related infrastructure build up over more than a century?” These are critical questions: conservative populist politicians who argue that a rapid decarbonization of the global energy system will result in economic ruin readily draw their support from the working-class community that is economically dependent on the fossil industry and its infrastructure. Some of these populist politicians can stimulate resentment and fear in the working-class demographic by mischaracterizing the pronouncements that are made by “elite” scientists and economists, who expound well-found theories on climate change that must be addressed urgently, as “fake news” and “climate change is a hoax”.
ISES, as with many other like-minded organizations, has long advocated for the research and development of solar energy technologies with a view that these technologies will one day be a major source of our energy supply, freeing us of the need for using non-renewable fossil and nuclear resources. We at ISES can argue that, from a technological perspective, our efforts have been successful, the cost competitiveness, durability and reliability of solar technologies has reached the point of being economically competitive with, and in some cases the lower-cost alternative to, traditional fossil-driven energy technologies.
But the path forward towards 100% renewables is still faced with the key challenge of gaining widespread public acceptance by all stakeholders, and especially those who are feeling more and more marginalized and forgotten by the transformation, and who are therefore vulnerable to supporting misguided politicians and their policies who work to maintain the status quo at all costs. This can be a particularly vexing issue in developing countries were energy demand is growing rapidly. But solutions are available: see, for example, this recent article published by the Brookings Institute.
Society has faced and overcome the challenges of transformative technologies before…keep in mind the transformation from an animal-driven to a gasoline driven transport system at the beginning of the last century, which occurred in just 15 years or so, and the transformation of a wired communication system to the internet-driven mobile smart phone and “internet of things” communication system occurring since the start of this century. The challenge of gaining the support of the broadest segment of the population to embrace the energy transformation must certainly be a big part of the work of ISES, IRENA and others. These organizations are best positioned to articulate the policies and societal benefits that show how there will be no losers in the transformation.
 I use “Working Class” here specifically to refer to those millions of workers who are directly or indirectly involved in the world’s fossil fuel energy enterprise.