The 7th session of the IRENA Assembly was held as part of the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and included two ministerial roundtables that addressed emerging themes in the energy sector.
A new tool produced by the World Bank in partnership with the International Solar Alliance, shows the potential for solar power in several countries.
In December 2016, the Government of India published its draft National Energy Plan, which forecasts that 57% of India’s electricity generating capacity will be from non-fossil fuel sources within 10 years.
18 January 2017: For the third year in a row, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) confirmed that 2016 was the hottest year on record, averaging about 1.1°C above the pre-industrial era. This is 0.4°C below the 1.5°C lower threshold that countries agreed to strive for in the Paris Agreement.
Shifting energy sources away from fossil fuels is a key part to halting and reversing this warming trend. Over the past few weeks, several meetings and initiatives have endeavored to promote such a shift.
WMO reports that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is now above 400 parts per million, that sea ice minimum records in the Arctic and Antarctic have been broken, and that the persistent loss of sea ice is driving weather, climate and ocean circulation patterns in other parts of the world. WMO adds that a very powerful warming El Niño event fueled high temperatures in the early months of 2016, but notes that “even after the end of El Niño, temperatures remained well above average.” [WMO Press Release] [UN Press Release]
In light of the urgency conveyed by global climate science, several projects are underway to foster the transition toward renewable energy, in the context of sustainable development. In particular, many of these initiatives reference and seek to achieve SDG 7: affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. To start the year, several projects, meetings and reports sought to take stock of investments in low carbon power through 2016, explore how these can be ramped up in 2017, bring renewable energy to the local level, or plan the shift toward renewable energy in developing countries.
Renewables Becoming More Mainstream: IRENA Assembly and ESCAP Committee on Energy Meet
The year kicked off with the 7th session of the IRENA Assembly, which brought together ministers and participants from private sector and civil society on 14-17 January 2017. Held as part of the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, the annual Assembly included two ministerial roundtables that addressed emerging themes in the energy sector. The first ministerial roundtable, titled ‘Towards an economy fuelled by renewable power: Innovation for the next stage of the power sector transformation,’ discussed regulatory, business and market models to foster renewable energies, recognizing that the “transformation of the power sector is advancing faster than expected.” The second ministerial roundtable focused squarely on the SDGs. Under the theme ‘Catalysing off-grid renewable energy deployment: Towards universal electricity access and the attainment of the SDGs,’ ministers focused on mainstreaming off-grid renewable energy and creating an “ecosystem” of policies, business and finance models and technologies to accelerate deployment. [IRENA Assembly, 7th Session]
At the first meeting of ESCAP’s Committee on Energy, participants began the process of developing a regional approach to address energy challenges.
During the Assembly’s session, IRENA published its flagship report ‘REthinking Energy,’ which aims to propel economic growth, employment opportunities, enhance human welfare while addressing climate change. The report adds more information to the growing consensus that renewable energy is becoming more mainstream. It notes that more than 170 countries have renewable energy targets, 67 countries have held renewable energy auctions by the end of 2016 (compared to five in 2005), and that solar photovoltaics (PV) achieved new price lows in several countries. Yet, the report underscores that market forces are insufficient to integrate renewable energy into larger shares of electricity systems. Strong government policies to catalyze investment and breakthroughs in complementary systems, such as storage and off-grid systems, can help achieve a renewable energy breakthrough and are becoming increasingly available and common. [IRENA Press Release] [REthinking Energy]
The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) also took up the theme of electricity access at the first meeting of the Committee on Energy held 17-19 January 2017, in Bangkok, Thailand. Participants began the process of developing a regional approach to address energy challenges and ministers met to share their visions on energy for sustainable development and their expectations for the new Committee and it grapples with achieving sustainable development and energy security while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. [ESCAP Committee on Energy’s First Session]
Tools and Projects Bring Renewables at the Local Level
While IRENA and the ESCAP Committee provided global outlooks on the future of the energy industry, other initiatives focused on more practical steps toward achieving SDG 7 and fostering the transition to renewable energy. A new tool produced by the World Bank in partnership with the International Solar Alliance, shows the potential for solar power in several countries. The new tool, called the Global Solar Atlas, displays the average annual solar power potential in considerable detail. Users can click on the free, web-based tool to a resolution of one kilometer to help investors and policymakers identify potential sites for solar power generation at the local level from virtually anywhere in the world. [World Bank Press Release] [Global Solar Atlas]
Turning this potential into projects on the ground requires partnerships to achieve cleaner energy that is accessible to all. UNEP DTU Partnership, an international research and advisory institution on energy, climate change and sustainable development, announced a project in partnership with the Danish and Kenyan Governments to promote the transition to local level, renewable energy. The project, titled ‘Supporting sustainable mini-grid development and production of wind turbines in Kenya,’ recognizes the opportunities to realize multiple objectives, including poverty reduction, economic growth, accessible energy and climate mitigation. [UNEP DTU Press Release]
Another option for generating the finance necessary to bring renewable energy to the local level is the continued use of market mechanisms. The UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) announced its 2015 operations were carbon neutral, owing to offsetting 16,000 tonnes of emissions using 100% Gold Standard Certified Emission Reduction (CERs) credits. UNOPS purchase of CERs has contributed to the distribution of solar cookers in the Danjung River area, Indonesia, and a wind project in Hebi province, China, which provides clean electricity for 70,000 households. [UNOPS Press Release]
Developing countries are planning renewable energy into their future, signalling future demand for partnerships and action toward renewable energy. In December 2016, the Government of India published its draft National Energy Plan, which forecasts that 57% of India’s electricity generating capacity will be from non-fossil fuel sources within 10 years. On 14 January 2017, the National Energy Administration (NEA) of China announced that it ordered 101 coal-fired power projects in 11 provinces to stop. Although some of these projects are under construction, the combined installed capacity of the projects is over 100 gigawatts and represent an investment over USD$62 billion. [India’s Draft National Electricity Plan] [Coal Industry Group Press Release]
While many developing countries have the fewest resources to devote to new technology, they represent considerable potential. Early deployment of renewable energy could avoid costly investments later, to re-tool and shift their energy infrastructure for renewable energy. The timing for many of these countries is propitious, if resources become available. The role of partnerships in bringing renewable and accessible energy to all looks to be a timely and necessary trend in 2017.