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Empowering Renewables

Adnan Amin explains how IRENA is making the case for renewables

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Adnan Amin, IRENA Director General.
Adnan Amin, IRENA Director General.

Adnan Amin, Director General of the International Renewable Energy Agency, explains how his organisation is making the case for renewables

As a young organisation charged with supporting the growth of global renewable energy, it would perhaps be understandable if the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), and its Director General Mr Adnan Z. Amin, had taken tentative first steps in a fairly massive task.

This has certainly not been the case. Through such things as its flagship programme of investigating countries’ renewable energy potential – the Renewables Readiness Assessment – and its role in reviewing applications for a share of the Abu Dhabi Development Fund’s US $350 million budget, the organisation has an impressive list of concrete achievements it can point to over its short existence.

The challenge, though, is still considerable. IRENA is aiming to draw together knowledge frameworks to support renewable development; to help stakeholders keep track of the plethora of rapid technological advancements in renewables; and to work with governments on capacity building – ensuring that the investment potential of renewable energy can actually be realised.

“With the scale of investment that is required in renewable energy to meet the various targets that we now have worldwide, it’s not possible that this is going to come solely from the public sector.

The real change in terms of scale for renewable energy investment is going to come from the private sector. The role of government is to ensure that the enabling policy environment for investment is there, and that protections such as environmental and social safeguards are also in place,” Amin says.

Amin and IRENA are recently returned from the Rio+20 Conference in Brazil, held twenty years after the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development. With a focus on issues including energy, sustainable cities and water, there has been a muted response from many in the industry who perhaps anticipated a more seminal conclusion.

“I think the outcome - what it actually is - is an enabling platform. For us, the result on the energy side was very positive. There’s a strong recognition of the renewable energy future and there are a number of areas where we can move forward quite decisively in taking hold of the renewable energy agenda.

Of course everything could be better – this one could have been much better – and you have massive disappointment from many NGOs that expected some kind of transformational moment in Rio.

“I understand that sentiment, but I think that it’s not helpful to trash it to an extent that people stop treating it seriously. I think it should be treated seriously, we should take the positive parts of it, and we should ourselves turn it into an action agenda. We intend to do that,” he says.

Amin suggests that the conference outcome at least avoided a ‘Copenhagen scenario’ where, in the presence of world leaders, no agreement was reached on sustainable development. The ‘Sustainable Energy for All’ initiative has set three targets before 2030 – to double the share of renewable energy, to ensure universal access to modern energy services, and to double the improvement in energy efficiency.

Global Atlas
One aspect of IRENA’s work that certainly gained a higher profile in Rio was the organisation’s Global Atlas project; a hugely impressive undertaking that aims to gather data on renewable energy potential into a central, open-access resource.

“The starting point of any investment in renewable energy is going to be mapping the resource potential. The Atlas is still at a fairly broad level, but we have already started to generate images on wind and solar that is giving us a pretty clear idea of where the resources are, and we are expanding this to bring in more and more countries.

Of course, there has to be a next step where the investors themselves make the specific investigations that are required, but the Atlas in principle eases that task substantially and gives a very clear picture to the international community of what is possible in terms of potential,” Amin says.

The Atlas already has renowned institutions such as France’s ParisTech and the United States’ National Renewable Energy Laboratory involved, together with the UAE’s Masdar, all bringing different expertise to bear on the project.

Masdar, for example, is researching solutions to the oft-mentioned issue of dust in the Middle East, and the effects it can have on the efficiency of solar PV panels. Using new remote imaging technology, they can now actually look at the dust in the atmosphere to give a clear sense of where solar investments should be sited to avoid endemic dust problems. It is this kind of knowledge that Amin says can be focused in the Atlas.

“There is a lot of new research coming, and I think the Global Atlas can become the vehicle for taking all that information that exists in different pockets – either expert institutions, government coffers or wherever it is – and making that much more systematic and available to investors and the public. It really has huge potential for the future and we are investing a lot in it.”

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Practical action
This practical focus is a real feature of IRENA’s approach, eschewing the perhaps traditional perception of oversized international organisations that are long on talk and short on action.

“We are taking a very different approach. We have governments on board that are already convinced that renewable energy is an option. What remains is how we deal with the practical issues of policy, investment, cost, technology, and of enabling frameworks for investment,” he says.

“Our focus is really on ‘how do you make practical solutions?’ and ‘how do you get the momentum of renewable energy investment really moving fast?’. We’re not going to have philosophical discussions about whether wind or solar is better, or whether renewable energy is an ethical issue or not. We believe it’s a realistic issue – an economic issue. There is a business case for renewable energy.”

Such a view, Amin says, has been taken in the Middle East. For example, Saudi Arabia is planning a huge expansion of its renewable sector, including its 41GW solar energy target, which Amin believes is both massive and realistic.

“If you look at their conundrum; they are one of the major oil producing countries, yet their domestic oil consumption – which is heavily subsidised – is rising exponentially and there are projections that in 20 years they could become net energy importers if they don’t do something about it.

It’s very worrying. Realistically the cost of using their own fossil fuel is the international market cost, plus the cost of the subsidy that they are using, so oil is actually costing them more to consume than for other countries that are consuming Saudi oil. Which to me doesn’t make economic sense, and so I understand their movement into renewables.”

Amin suggests that this motivation is similar throughout the region, and consequently countries are increasingly beginning to look closely at renewables. The issue here, he says, is that there is a tendency to talk a great deal, but to struggle with what the practical nature of renewable development will look like.

“The problem is going from the idea, and the public support of that idea, to actually making it happen. And here I think you need more of a concrete push to really empower people to make this move ahead,” he says.

Whether this can be achieved through incentivising renewable energy use or energy efficiency, the potential benefits of doing so are very exciting.

“We already know, for example, that low level geothermal can be used for cooling. That’s a huge energy expenditure that you can save from fossil fuels. And it’s being done – they have an experimental plant in Masdar City that they’re testing for district cooling. I think that if that proves its worth, that’s something that can be replicated throughout the region.”

Amin also raises the prospect of desalination powered by renewable energy – a big talking point among many in the water sector. He suggests that using renewable energy would decentralise the process of desalination, improving water security whilst saving vast amounts of energy.

“If the economics of it begin to work out, it would be revolutionary for this region. If we can derive the volume of water at the cost we need using renewable energy for desalination, it transforms everything.”

Opportunities
Amin believes that developing economies have a real opportunity to ‘leapfrog’ other countries in the renewable sphere if the resource potential – in terms of solar, wind, hydro and so on – can be matched with the right tools to make the market transformation.

“I think what we are going to see over time is that the real growth arena for renewable energy is going to be in emerging and developing economies. There’s been a fairly widescale investment in renewables in developed economies and much of that in the future will be going into replacements with only marginal additions. Real growth is going to come from fast-growing, energy hungry economies.

“And we’re seeing it. China has come from nowhere to become the leading investor in renewables; Brazil is right there; India is right there; South Africa is right there. And we’re seeing more and more developing countries that are beginning to take this path.”

Amin says that the argument for renewable energy has been so compelling that 2011 saw renewable energy capacity additions exceed conventional energy additions for the first time. As such, he believes that his organisation is already on to a winner, and that now it is a question of ensuring that the possibilities and enabling environment are in place to ensure renewable energy’s success.

“I absolutely believe in the tremendous risk we face as a global community from climate change – it’s unprecedented in many ways – but complaining about it is a disempowering activity. Doing something that has a good business case and also addresses the problem – now that’s an empowering thing.”

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