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Staying on Course: Renewable Energy in the Time of COVID-19

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Francesco La Camera, IRENA Director-General, image: IRENA

Statement by Francesco La Camera, IRENA Director-General 

In a short few weeks, much of the world has been shut down due to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, which has crossed borders and oceans, rapidly devastating communities and livelihoods.

Decisions being taken now to address the social and economic impacts of the crisis come amid profound uncertainty about both the course of the pandemic and its long-term ramifications for societies across the world. The immediate priority remains to save as many lives as possible, bring the health emergency under control and alleviate hardship. At the same time, governments are embarking on the monumental task of devising stimulus and recovery packages. These are at a scale to shape societies and economies for years to come.

This response must align with medium- and long-term priorities. The goals set out in the United Nations 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement can serve as a compass to stay on course during this disorienting period. They can help to ensure that the short-term solutions adopted in the face of COVID-19 are in line with medium- and long-term development and climate objectives.

Stimulus and recovery packages can also accelerate the shift to sustainable, decarbonised economies and resilient inclusive societies. A coherent design approach is needed to secure political buy-in, business support and social acceptance. As the current crisis makes clear, we can no longer afford to make policy decisions and investments in isolation amid elaborately intertwined social, economic and environmental challenges.

The fundamentally economic, more than financial, nature of this crisis calls for a major state role in the response. This involves defining the strategies and initiating direct interventions for the way out. Expansionary budget policies may be envisaged to support this effort.

Stimulus and recovery measures in response to the pandemic must foster economic development and job creation, promote social equity and welfare, and put the world on a climate-safe path. By making the energy transition an integral part of the wider recovery, governments can achieve a step change in the pursuit of a healthy, inclusive, prosperous, just and resilient future.

Energy transitions are already underway in many countries. These transitions have become increasingly affordable because of forward-looking policy frameworks, ongoing innovations and falling technology costs for renewables. Solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power have become the cheapest sources of electricity in many markets, with other renewable power sources poised to reach cost parity within a few years. In the power sector, renewables have dominated new capacity additions and increasingly outpaced fossil fuels for the past seven years. Last year alone, renewables accounted for nearly three quarters of global power capacity additions.

The economic fallout from the pandemic is far-reaching, with an adverse impact on many sectors including renewables. For many reasons, however, the impact may be different than in other economic sectors. Governments can turn to a renewables-based energy transition to bring a range of solutions at this difficult moment. Many renewable technologies can be ramped up relatively quickly, helping to revive industries and create new jobs.

Decentralised solutions tend to be comparatively labour-intensive. Adopting renewables can therefore create employment and boost local income in both developed and developing energy markets. Employment in the sector, which reached 11 million jobs worldwide in 2018, could quadruple by 2050, while jobs in energy efficiency and system flexibility could grow by another 40 million.

Decentralised technologies also allow for greater involvement by citizens and communities in energy decisions, with transformative social implications. Importantly, they offer a proven approach for remote health care in energy-poor communities and add a key element to the crisis response toolkit.

In the creation of future infrastructure, energy solutions aimed at scaling up renewables provide a safe and visionary strategic investment choice. Recovery measures could help to install flexible power grids, efficiency solutions, electric vehicle (EV) charging systems, energy storage, interconnected hydropower, green hydrogen and multiple other clean energy technologies. With the need for energy decarbonisation unchanged, such investments safeguard against short-sighted decisions and increased accumulation of stranded assets.

The latest oil price developments and the heightened unpredictability of returns on hydrocarbon investments make the business case for renewables even stronger. Current market dynamics could further weaken the viability of unconventional oil and gas resources and long-term contracts. The moment has come to reduce or redirect fossil-fuel subsidies towards clean energy without added social disruption.

Research and innovation are vital to keep improving the technologies and reduce the costs for sustainable energy. This is especially true in end-use sectors like transport, heating and cooling, as well as for enabling technologies such as energy storage and green hydrogen. Governments must embrace these forward-looking options to ensure that public policies and investment decisions reflect the true potential for low-carbon economic development.

These should be major considerations as policy makers put together recovery measures. A purely market-driven approach will not be adequate, either to respond to the immediate crisis or to mobilise longer-term investments. Governments will have to consider innovative approaches to secure financing at the required scale and speed. Clear long-term objectives, combined with targeted public investment and appropriate market incentives, will also enable the private sector to act swiftly and confidently.

While the current crisis has undoubtedly underlined global interconnections and strengthened the vision of a more resilient society at national and regional levels, it has also highlighted the vast differences in countries’ circumstances and capacities. International co-operation is needed to tackle deeply embedded shortfalls and vulnerabilities, and crisis responses must reflect global co-dependency. Investments must be directed everywhere they are needed, including to the most vulnerable countries and communities.

This year was meant to be a turning point for climate and sustainable development, with 2020 marking the start of the decade of action. The unexpected pandemic, with its devastating consequences for communities and economies is upending plans, interrupting trends and testing assumptions. We are yet to see the contours of the post-COVID world.

The mounting loss of life is devastating, and the strain on communities and economies will require thoughtful and far-reaching strategies. A wider perspective is needed, viewing energy, society, economy and the environment as parts of a unique, holistic system.

The response must provide more than just a bail-out for existing socio-economic structures. Now, more than ever, public policies and investment decisions must align with the vision of a sustainable and just future. Such undertakings are certainly ambitious. But they are entirely achievable with a collective, co-ordinated response.

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Hydrogen in North-Western Europe: A vision towards 2030

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North-West Europe has a well-developed hydrogen industry that could be at the edge of an unprecedented transformation should governments keep raising their ambitions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new joint report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Clingendael International Energy Programme (CIEP). 

The report, Hydrogen in North-Western Europe: A vision towards 2030, explores hydrogen developments, policies and potential for collaboration in the region. It was commissioned to inform discussions among governments from North-West Europe about the potential development of a regional hydrogen market. This intergovernmental dialogue was established at the Clean Energy Ministerial Hydrogen Initiative in 2020.

The report finds that the current policy landscape provides some momentum for the transformation of the hydrogen industry in North-West Europe towards 2030, but that it is insufficient to fully tap into the region’s potential to develop a large-scale low-carbon hydrogen value chain. More ambitious policies in line with the targets defined by the EU Green Deal or the UK Climate Change Act would drive a faster transformation.

If such a supportive policy framework were to be adopted, hydrogen demand in the region could grow by a third and low-carbon hydrogen could meet more than half of dedicated production, up from about 10% today, according to the report.

North-West European countries have already made significant progress developing their vision for the role hydrogen should play in their long-term energy strategies. These countries now face the challenge of moving beyond national discussions to establish a regional dialogue, an indispensable condition to develop the fully integrated hydrogen market the region needs. 

With the aim of informing this dialogue, the report identifies four priorities that should be addressed:

  • Build on the large unused potential to co-operate on hydrogen in the north-western European region.
  • Identify what is needed to develop an integrated regional market.
  • Develop supporting schemes with a holistic view of the hydrogen value chain.
  • Identify the best opportunities to simultaneously decarbonise current hydrogen production and deploy additional low-carbon supply.

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Seven Countries Account for Two-Thirds of Global Gas Flaring

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In an unprecedented year for the oil and gas industry, oil production declined by 8% in 2020, while global gas flaring reduced by 5%, according to satellite data compiled by the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR). Oil production dropped from 82 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2019 to 76 million b/d in 2020, as global gas flaring reduced from 150 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2019 to 142 bcm in 2020. Nonetheless, the world still flared enough gas to power sub-Saharan Africa. The United States accounted for 70% of the global decline, with gas flaring falling by 32% from 2019 to 2020, due to an 8% drop in oil production, combined with new infrastructure to use gas that would otherwise be flared.

Gas flaring satellite data from 2020 reveals that Russia, Iraq, Iran, the United States, Algeria, Venezuela and Nigeria remain the top seven gas flaring countries for nine years running, since the first satellite was launched in 2012. These seven countries produce 40% of the world’s oil each year, but account for roughly two-thirds (65%) of global gas flaring. This trend is indicative of ongoing, though differing, challenges facing these countries. For example, the United States has thousands of individual flare sites, difficult to connect to a market, while a few high flaring oil fields in East Siberia in the Russian Federation are extremely remote, lacking the infrastructure to capture and transport the associated gas.

Gas flaring, the burning of natural gas associated with oil extraction, takes place due to a range of issues, from market and economic constraints, to a lack of appropriate regulation and political will. The practice results in a range of pollutants released into the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, methane and black carbon (soot). The methane emissions from gas flaring contribute significantly to global warming in the short to medium term, because methane is over 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide on a 20-year basis.

“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, oil-dependent developing countries are feeling the pinch, with constrained revenues and budgets. But with gas flaring still releasing over 400 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions each year, now is the time for action. We must forge ahead with plans to dramatically reduce the direct emissions of the oil and gas sector, including from gas flaring,” said Demetrios Papathanasiou, Global Director for the Energy and Extractives Global Practice at the World Bank.

The World Bank’s GGFR is a trust fund and partnership of governments, oil companies, and multilateral organizations working to end routine gas flaring at oil production sites around the world. GGFR, in partnership with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Colorado School of Mines, has developed global gas flaring estimates based upon observations from two satellites, launched in 2012 and 2017. The advanced sensors of these satellites detect the heat emitted by gas flares as infrared emissions at global upstream oil and gas facilities.

“Awareness of gas flaring as a critical climate and resource management issue is greater than ever before. Almost 80 governments and oil companies have committed to Zero Routine Flaring within the next decade and some are also joining our global partnership, which is a very positive development. Gas flaring reduction projects require significant investment and take several years to produce results. In the lead-up to the next UN Climate Change conference in Glasgow, we continue to call upon oil-producing country governments and companies to place gas flaring reduction at the center of their climate action plans. To save the world from millions of tons of emissions a year, this 160-year-old industry practice must now come to an end.” said Zubin Bamji, Program Manager of the World Bank’s GGFR Partnership Trust Fund.

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IEA supports Indonesia’s plans for deploying renewable energy

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The IEA is carrying out a large work programme on power system enhancement with the Government of Indonesia to help it modernise the country’s electricity sector, including support for overcoming challenges inherent in integrating variable renewables like wind and solar PV.

As part of the work programme, the IEA hosted a series of webinars in early 2021 where Indonesia’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources and national power utility PLN could learn from other countries’ experiences of integrating and setting targets for variable renewable energy.

An introductory session on the principles of integrating renewable energy was held ahead of the country specific sessions. In this session, the IEA presented its framework for renewable integration phases to the Ministry and PLN, highlighting the different challenges often faced during renewable integration as well as what flexibility options can be deployed to tackle these challenges.

In the first country session, IEA presented the main findings of the Thailand flexibility study that the Agency carried out in cooperation with EGAT, the Thai electricity utility. The study shows that Thailand has the technical capability to integrate larger shares of variable renewables, but that the lack of commercial flexibility is a major barrier for operating the power system in a more flexible way and thus is the main obstacle for integrating large amounts of renewables.

In the second country session, the Danish Energy Agency presented its work programme with the Government of Viet Nam. The sessions focused on important aspects for integration of renewables, such as the assessing the needs and implications of reserves and forecasting. The session also included a discussion on the main learning points from the boom in rooftop solar that Viet Nam has experienced in 2020. 

The third and last country session was on India. The IEA presented both national as well as state-level modelling in order to show some of the contextual differences between national models and models that focus on specific geographical regions. In India, the spot market accounts for only 10% of electricity generation, which shows that India, like Thailand, has some issues with commercial flexibility. The discussion also covered India’s level of dependency on physical power purchase agreements and its impacts on the flexibility of the power system.

All sessions were held behind closed doors to allow for an open discussion between the participating organisations on the issues of renewable integration and possible ways of addressing barriers. The IEA will continue the work with the Indonesian Ministry and PLN on this topic in order to facilitate a path towards a clean, affordable, secure and modern power sector in Indonesia.

This work in Indonesia is undertaken within the Clean Energy Transitions in Emerging Economies programme.

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