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Iceland, a world leader in clean energy, supports Africa’s push for geothermal power

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At the beginning of the 20th century, Iceland was one of Europe’s poorest countries, its people relying on a precarious and polluting mix of imported coal and local peat for electricity.

But over the next century, the island nation would pull off one of the great energy makeovers in history, casting off fossil fuels and embracing geothermal power. Today, nearly 100 percent of Iceland’s electricity comes from renewable sources, a transformation that has helped make its 366,000 people some of the wealthiest in Europe.

For the last decade, Iceland has been working with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to spark a similar energy revolution in Eastern Africa. Iceland has done everything from financing exploration projects to training future geothermal engineers.

“We are a small country, but we try to focus our efforts in certain areas and this is one of them,” said Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, Iceland’s Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources. He called the country’s partnership with UNEP “fruitful”.

Harnessing geothermal energy means harnessing the heat from within the Earth, which is carried by water or steam onto the surface. There are many ways in which the hot water can be released – through geysers, hot springs, steam vents, underwater hydrothermal vents – and they are all potential sources of geothermal energy.

Iceland, a pioneer in the use of geothermal energy, is home to more than 200 volcanoes and a large number of hot springs, and therefore has an abundant source of hot, easily accessible underground water. This is converted to energy both for power generation and direct use applications.

Half a world away, East African countries are sitting atop a similar bounty. They line the Great East African Rift System, a 6,500-kilometre depression that stretches from northern Syria to central Mozambique. The rift is a hub of tectonic activity. Along much of its length, heat from the interior of the earth bursts to the surface. It’s estimated that if Eastern Africa could harness that energy, it could generate 20 gigawatts of electricity. That is significant in a region plagued by energy shortages, where – depending on the country – 25 to 89 percent of the population did not have access to energy in 2018.

Iceland is an important partner and co-financier of the UNEP African Rift Geothermal Development Facility Project. The effort, launched in 2010, is designed to spur geothermal investments in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Between 2012 and 2019, Iceland also helped seven countries in East Africa develop their expertise in geothermal energy through the Geothermal Exploration Project.

“Geothermal is hundred percent indigenous, environmentally friendly and a technology that has been under-utilized for too long in the continent,” said Meseret Teklemariam Zemedkun, Energy Programme Manager at UNEP. “It is time to take this technology off the back burner in order to power livelihoods, fuel development and reduce dependence on polluting and unpredictable fossil fuels.”

Iceland is also home to the Geothermal Training Programme of the United Nations University (UNU-GTP). Established in 1978, it has graduated more than 1,300 fellows from 100 developing countries. About 39 percent of the trainees during 1979-2016 have come from 17 African countries. This indicates a significant contribution of UNU-GTP in enhancing the capacities of the region.

Along with several partners, including the UNEP, the country is also helping to establish the African Geothermal Center of Excellence. To be based in Kenya, which has been developing geothermal power since the 1970s, the centre will help train young African geothermal scientists, engineers, drillers, technicians and financiers to ensure secured and sustainable geothermal development in Africa.

In the energy sector, the partnership between Iceland and UNEP is expanding to support women through the African Women Energy Entrepreneurs Framework. The aim is to overcome the main barriers and challenges that hinder the establishment, growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the energy sector in Africa.

“Iceland has been a steadfast and important partner to UNEP in bringing geothermal expertise to East Africa,” said Meseret Teklemariam Zemedkun. “We are proud of the partnership and the results we have achieved, and happy to be expanding the partnership to support women and youth in the energy sector.”

Iceland is not only an important partner to UNEP because of the technical and financial support provided to energy projects. It is also one of the Member States that has consistently paid their “fair share” to the Environment Fund of UNEP – thereby supporting all of UNEP’s work.

UN Environment

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Renewable energy access key to climate adaptation in Africa

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Support for climate adaptation in Africa is crucial, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Tuesday in appealing for greater action to provide renewable energy to hundreds of millions who still lack access to reliable and affordable electricity.

“As the continent that has contributed least to the climate crisis, Africa deserves the strongest possible support and solidarity”, he told an online dialogue for leaders convened by the African Development Bank.

Mr. Guterres warned that “adaptation must not be the neglected half of the climate equation”.

Old models failing

Although Africa has abundant and untapped renewable resources, it has received just two per cent of global investment in renewable energy over the past decade, he reported.

Old models of development and energy use have failed to provide Africans with universal energy access, he said, meaning hundreds of millions of people still lack reliable and affordable electricity or are cooking with polluting and harmful fuels.

“We can provide universal access to energy in Africa primarily through renewable energy. I call for a comprehensive package of support to meet this objective ahead of COP26,” Mr. Guterres said, referring to the UN climate change conference in November.

“It is achievable. It is necessary. It is overdue. And it is smart: climate action is a $3 trillion investment opportunity in Africa by 2030,” he added.

‘Major finance gap’

However, the Secretary-General pointed to “the major finance” gap blocking progress towards this goal. He urged developed countries to deliver on their $100 billion climate commitment made over a decade ago.

“Developed countries and main financers must ensure a swift shift of the billions to support African green investments, to increase resilience and to create the conditions for scaled-up private finance”, he said.

“And the private sector must step up and get organized to provide immediate, concrete solutions to governments. Local authorities can work with unions and community leaders on reskilling and social security nets.”

Commitment and fiscal autonomy

While African Governments also can lead the way by committing to ambitious adaptation and mitigation plans, they first need to regain their fiscal autonomy, he said.

The Secretary-General stressed the need to extend the debt moratorium for developing countries, made last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and even cancelling debts where appropriate.

Furthermore, Special Drawing Rights, a type of supplementary foreign reserve maintained by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), must also be made available to support Africa’s recovery.

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How Renewables Offer New Solutions for District Heating and Cooling

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Heating is the largest end user of energy, accounting for over 50% of global final energy consumption worldwide. At present, much of this demand is met by burning fossil fuels, making the sector a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. Renewables can play a significant role in decarbonising the way we heat homes and businesses.

Traditionally, biofuels have been the main alternative to fossil fuels in district heating and cooling. However recent improvements in building insulation and digitalisation have opened district energy to widely accessible, low-temperature renewables such as low-temperature geothermal, solar thermal and waste heat sources.

These sources are widely available in many regions. Yet, they remain largely untapped because they are not immediately compatible with current district energy infrastructure and existing building stock according to IRENA’s “Integrating Low-Temperature Renewables in District Energy Systems” published in collaboration with Aalborg university, Denmark.

Speaking during a recent workshop to launch the report, Miklos Antics, the President of the European Geothermal Energy Council, said more than 25% of the EU population lives in areas directly suitable for geothermal district heating.

The workshop was held under the framework of the Energy Solutions for Cities of the Future and under the umbrella of the Global Geothermal Alliance, with a focus on China with the support of the Chinese Renewable Energy Engineering Institute (CREEI). “District heating is of utmost importance to achieve decarbonised energy systems in China by 2060,” said Professor Brian Vad Mathiesen from Aalborg University.

For his part, Haukur Hardarsson, Chairman and Founder of Arctic Green Energy, highlighted the fact that Sinopec Green Energy connected about 60 million square meters of floor area to geothermal district heating systems, saving the country and the world close to 13 million tons of CO2 over the last decade – showing the environmental value of geothermal energy for heating and cooling.

IRENA’s analysis shares good practices from mature district heating and cooling markets with emerging markets and shows that a lack of data and a disconnect with building renovation strategies at the municipality level is holding back further integration of low-temperature renewables.

To overcome the challenges associated with the integration of low-temperature renewables into district heating and cooling, the report offers the following key recommendations:

  • Develop strategic heating and cooling plans based on clear political drivers and identify relevant stakeholders;
  • Elaborate technical scenarios based on heating and/or cooling demand and mapping of resources;
  • Integrate change of supply, modernization of the network and building renovations;
  • Promote the utilisation of locally available renewables for heating and cooling;
  • Establish enabling regulatory conditions, supportive financing options and business models
  • According to the report, heating and cooling challenges, such as issues with current energy supply, should be addressed in a co-ordinated and informed manner and with a long-term perspective.
  • “Development of district heating and cooling systems, particularly those that are compatible with low-temperature renewable energy resources, is one way to integrate more renewables in the heating and cooling sector. However, this requires a collaborative effort from all relevant stakeholders, to address the inherent challenges,” said IRENA’s Director of Country Engagement and Partnerships Gurbuz Gonul during the workshop.
  • “If action is taken, renewables can constitute up to 77% of the energy supplied to district heating energy systems by 2050, up from only 8% in 2017,” he added.
  • The high upfront capital costs associated with the construction and refurbishment of the building stock as well as of the district heating and cooling network are substantial and it can take a decade or longer before any profits are realised, according to the report. This makes these projects a good match for investors seeking long-term revenue streams rather than quick returns.
  • The report also highlights the role of national and local authorities in strategic planning for heating and cooling and supporting district energy operators by de-risking investments and facilitating access to direct funding from the public sector. Project developers can also benefit from technical assistance programmes that assess the viability of projects, support the development of district energy infrastructure in new markets, and evaluate renewable energy supply options.

To read the full report, click here.

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Fast-Track Energy Transitions to Win the Race to Zero

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Proven technologies for a net-zero energy system already largely exist today, finds the preview of World Energy Transitions Outlook by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Renewable power, green hydrogen and modern bioenergy will dominate the world of energy of the future.

Previewed at the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue today, IRENA’s Outlook proposes energy transition solutions for the narrow pathway available to contain the rise of temperature to 1.5°C and  halt irreversible global warming. 90% of all decarbonisation solutions in 2050 will involve renewable energy through direct supply of low-cost power, efficiency, renewable-powered electrification in end-use as well as green hydrogen. Carbon capture and removal technologies in combination with bioenergy will deliver the ‘last mile’ CO2 reductions towards a net-zero energy system.

With 2030 deadlines around the corner, this Outlook comes at a critical time when acting fast and bold on global climate pledges is crucial in the decisive year of UN High-Level Dialogue on Energy and Glasgow Climate Conference COP26.   

Francesco La Camera, Director-General of IRENA said: “The window of opportunity to achieve the 1.5°C Paris Agreement goal is closing fast. The recent trends show that the gap between where we are and where we should be is not decreasing but widening. We are heading in the wrong direction. The World Energy Transitions Outlook considers options of the narrow pathway we have to be in line with the 1.5°C goal. We need a drastic acceleration of energy transitions to make a meaningful turnaround. Time will be the most important variable to measure our efforts.”

“While the pathway is daunting, several favourable elements can make it achievable,” La Camera added. “Major economies accounting for over half of global CO2 emissions are turning carbon neutral. Global capital is moving too. We see financial markets and investors shifting capital into sustainable assets. Covid-19 has highlighted the cost of tying economies to fossil fuels and confirmed the resilience of renewable energy. As governments pump huge sums in bailouts and recovery, investment must support energy transition. It is time to act and countries can lead the way with policies for a climate-safe, prosperous and just energy system fit for the 21st century.”

IRENA’s “1.5°C pathway” sees a trebling of global power dominated by renewables in 2050. It also sees a decline in fossil fuel use by more than 75% over the same time, with oil and coal consumption shrinking fastest. Natural gas should peak around 2025, becoming the largest remaining fossil fuel by 2050.

Financial markets reflect this shift by allocating capital away from fossil fuels and into sustainable assets like renewables. The downgrading of fossil fuels continues, with shares of fossil‑fuel-heavy energy sector in S&P index falling from 13% a decade ago to below 3% today. In contrast, investors are flooding money into renewable energy stock with S&P clean energy up by 138% in 2020.

However, significant investment will have to be redirected, IRENA’s Outlook shows. Major economies have announced economic stimulus packages that will pump approximately USD 4.6 trillion directly into carbon-relevant sectors such as agriculture, industry, waste, energy and transport, but less than USD 1.8 trillion is green.

By contrast, energy transition investment will have to increase by 30% over planned investment to a total of USD 131 trillion between now and 2050, corresponding to USD 4.4 trillion on average every year. Socioeconomic benefits will be massive, investing in transition will create close to three times more jobs than fossil fuels, for each million dollars of spending. To address concerns about a fair and just transition, IRENA’s Outlook calls for a holistic and consistent overall policy framework.

IRENA’s “1.5°C pathway” sees electricity becoming the main energy carrier in 2050 with renewable power capacity expanding more than ten-fold over the same period. Transport will see the highest growth of electrification with a 30-fold increase. Almost 70% of carbon emission reductions in transport will come from direct and indirect electrification.

Green hydrogen will emerge as one of the major demand for electricity, representing 30% of total consumption in 2050. Bioenergy combined with carbon removal technologies (BECCS) will increasingly be important for industry to bring “negative emissions” in face of a limited carbon budget for 1.5C.

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