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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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Covid crisis deepens energy efficiency slowdown, intensifying need for urgent action

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The already sluggish pace of global progress on energy efficiency is set to slow further this year as a result of the economic impacts of the Covid-19 crisis, deepening the challenge of reaching international energy and climate goals and making stronger government action critical, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency.

Global primary energy intensity – a key indicator of how efficiently the world’s economic activity uses energy – is expected to improve by less than 1% this year, the weakest rate since 2010, according to Energy Efficiency 2020, the latest edition the IEA’s annual update on efficiency trends. This is well below the level of progress needed to achieve the world’s shared goals for addressing climate change, reducing air pollution and increasing access to energy.

The disappointing trends are being exacerbated by a plunge in investments in energy-efficient buildings, equipment and vehicles amid the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic, the report finds. Purchases of new cars, which are more efficient than older models, have slowed, while construction of new, more efficient homes and other buildings is also expected to decelerate. In industry and commercial buildings, lower energy prices have extended payback periods for key efficiency measures by as much as 40%, reducing their attractiveness compared with other investments. Overall, investment in energy efficiency worldwide is on course to fall by 9% in 2020.

“Together with renewables, energy efficiency is one of the mainstays of global efforts to reach energy and climate goals. While our recent analysis shows encouraging momentum for renewables, I’m very concerned that improvements in global energy efficiency are now at their slowest rate in a decade,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the Executive Director of the IEA. “For governments that are serious about boosting energy efficiency, the litmus test will be the amount of resources they devote to it in their economic recovery packages, where efficiency measures can help drive economic growth and job creation.”

Improvements in energy efficiency can contribute around half of the reduction in energy-related greenhouse gas emissions that is required over the next two decades to put the world on a path to meeting international energy and climate goals, according to IEA analysis. But short-term trends resulting from the Covid-19 crisis are slowing improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy, meaning that every unit of economic output uses more energy than it would do otherwise. This is mainly because energy-intensive industries, such as metals manufacturing and chemicals, appear to have been less severely affected by the crisis than other, less intensive parts of the economy.

The stimulus packages governments are introducing as part of their economic recovery plans will heavily influence future efficiency trends. They have the potential to drive investments and structural changes that can reduce energy intensity across all sectors of the economy. More than 60% of the funding for energy efficiency-related measures in stimulus packages announced by governments to date has focused on either the buildings sector or on accelerating the shift to electric vehicles, including new vehicle charging infrastructure.

Many opportunities remain untapped, however, with IEA tracking revealing a spending imbalance across sectors. No announcements have been made to increase the penetration of super-efficient appliances, while spending on vehicle efficiency beyond electric vehicles is minimal to date. The planned spending is also imbalanced on a regional basis, with announcements from European countries dwarfing those from other parts of the world. Announced spending in Europe accounts for 86% of global public stimulus announcements for efficiency, with the remaining 14% split between the Asia-Pacific region and North America.

“We welcome plans by governments to boost spending on energy efficiency in response to the economic crisis, but what we have seen so far is uneven and far from enough,” said Dr Birol. “Energy efficiency should be at the top of to-do lists for governments pursuing a sustainable recovery – it is a jobs machine, it gets economic activity going, it saves consumers money, it modernises vital infrastructure and it reduces emissions. There’s no excuse not to put far more resources behind it.”

Spending on efficiency-related stimulus measures announced by governments worldwide to date is set to generate almost 2 million full-time jobs between 2021 and 2023, according to IEA analysis, mostly in the buildings sector and mainly in Europe. However, the IEA’s Sustainable Recovery Plan suggests further recovery efforts related to energy efficiency could create another 4 million jobs globally through enhanced public and private sector investment in buildings, transport and industry.

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Urgent Action Needed for the Energy Transition in Heating and Cooling

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The transition to cleaner, more sustainable heating and cooling solutions can attract investment, create millions of new jobs and help to drive a durable economic recovery in the wake of the global COVID-19 crisis, says a new study by leading energy organisations.

The joint report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Renewable Energy Network for the 21st Century (REN21), highlights the benefits, identifies investment barriers, as well as the policies to drive faster uptake of renewable heating and cooling worldwide. Renewable Energy Policies in a Time of Transition: Heating and Cooling describes five possible transformation pathways, encompassing renewables-based electrification, renewable gases, sustainable biomass, and direct uses of solar thermal and geothermal heat.

“Energy efficient heating and cooling based on renewable sources has emerged as an urgent priority for countries striving to meet climate commitments under the Paris Agreement and to build resilient, sustainable economies,” said IRENA Director-General, Francesco La Camera.

“The transition to cleaner, more efficient and sustainable heating and cooling solutions can attract investments, create millions of new jobs and help to drive a durable economic recovery in the wake of the global COVID-19 crisis. It will make much needed heating and cooling services available to everyone, including to remote islands and least-developed countries of Africa and Asia.”

Heating and cooling demand accounts for around half of global final energy consumption, mostly for industrial processes, followed by residential and agricultural applications. Most of this energy now comes either from fossil fuels or inefficient, unsustainable uses of biomass. Heating and cooling, consequently, is a major source of air pollution and accounts for over 40 per cent of global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. At the same time, around 2.8 billion people currently rely on wood fuel, charcoal, animal dung and other inefficient and polluting fuels for cooking.

The demand for heating and cooling is set to keep growing. Cooling demand has already tripled globally since 1990, and as climate change increases the number and severity of heat waves, so does the urgency for supplying air conditioning and refrigeration to billions of people.

Policy makers have so far given limited attention to the heating and cooling transition. By the end of 2019, only 49 countries – mostly within the European Union – had national targets for renewable heating and cooling, in contrast with 166 having targets for renewable power generation. To decarbonise the energy used for heating and cooling, aggressive and comprehensive policy packages that phase out the use of fossil fuels and prioritise renewable energy and efficiency are even more urgent amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has cut demand for renewables-based heating and cooling services, including in households and small businesses. The health and economic crisis has also worsened conditions for energy access in many developing countries.

Transitioning to renewable sources will help to increase access to clean, affordable and reliable heating and cooling services, even on remote islands and in some of the least-developed countries of Africa and Asia. At the same time, renewable heating and cooling can create new jobs, stimulate local economies, and improve people’s livelihoods, while strengthening countries’ energy security and independence, the report notes.

Read the full report

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Securing Africa’s Energy Future in the Wake of Covid-19

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African ministers from countries making up 70% of Africa’s total primary energy supply, nearly 70% of its GDP and more than half of the continent’s entire population met with global energy leaders via videoconference on 24 November 2020.

A revitalised energy sector is key to Africa’s economic transformation. Participants agreed on the urgent need to enhance actions to ensure sustainable economic recovery and significantly scale up energy investments in Africa over the next three years in the wake of Covid-19.

Discussions highlighted implementation priorities and innovations key to enabling Africa’s energy sector to power regional economic growth over the three-year period (2020-2023) that coincides with end of the first 10-year Action Plan of the AU Agenda 2063. Africa’s pace of progress towards the realisation of the transformative Agenda 2063 continental vision will be determined by the degree to which it successfully recovers from the evolving impacts of the 2020 global health and socioeconomic crisis. African countries must engage in robust, innovative actions to strengthen energy security, scale up infrastructure investment, and promote the growth of the green economy, making use of all available opportunities to continually accelerate Africa’s clean energy transitions. These interventions can be bolstered by enhanced rates of internal trade in Africa, including in the energy sector, through a speedy implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area.

Ensuring Sustainable Recovery – Participants noted that achievement of full access to modern energy by 2030 is achievable but will require stable, consistent policies and strong political will. They stressed the need for all global stakeholders to maintain focus on collective action, and also update plans to step up the pace of universal access to electricity and modern cooking in Africa. African governments and other partners must continue to work together to ensure progress towards achievement of SDG7. It was acknowledged that the momentum behind existing policy and investment plans was insufficient to meet the modern energy needs of Africa’s population. It was noted with concern that the initial Covid-19 crisis impact in 2020 had already severely affected recent progress on universal energy access.

Financing and Investment – Participants underscored that Africa is facing major challenges in obtaining the required finance and new investments to meet its immense structural transformation needs. Challenges include reduced financing flows, a lack of fiscal space, a slowdown in new investments in the energy sector and significant increases in the cost of borrowing. Oil and gas producers in Africa have been hit very hard throughout 2020, and many new ones have seen their hope for energy sector transformation dashed by the global economic slowdown this year. Local currencies have weakened against hard currencies and this is translating to higher debt burden. The already weak financial position of many African power utilities has been worsened by declining demand due to the pandemic and a high default rate. This situation is further exacerbated by weakened currencies.

Key conclusions – Participants stressed the following top recommendations going forward:

Partnership for a green and just transition is an essential priority to boost sustainable economic recovery in Africa and ensure progress towards universal access to clean energy, whilst ensuring that no one is left behind. In that context, the need to involve more women and youth throughout the value chain of energy projects was also emphasised.

Support for energy sector institutions and particularly power utilities, which are the fulcrum of the sector, is critical against the financial shocks imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Predictable policy environments with innovative market regulations help to attract new investment.

An integrated approach embracing grid, mini-grid and off-grid solutions is required to sustain the momentum for increasing access. In light of the Covid-19 crisis, supportive policies to ensure the sustainability of mini-grid providers need to be replicated across the continent.

Despite the challenges imposed by Covid-19, governments must avoid the temptation to slow down the pace of energy access and provide the right incentives for the private sector to play a part in the recovery process, leveraging on the productive sector and innovative business models and digitalisation.

Enhanced multilateral, regional and international cooperation can play an important role in addressing financing and investmentchallenges in the post Covid-19 era.

Stronger regional integration of electricity markets and infrastructure is a crucial factor in achieving a just energy transition as well as building secure, flexible and reliable power supply in Africa.

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) opens the door to a new era of increased interconnectedness. Continental energy infrastructure programs like PIDA should play significant role to support AfCFTA.

A strong focus on improving power infrastructure, within and across borders, building up regulation and capacity to support Africa’s power pools and further enable regional electricity markets could all play an instrumental role in improving the financing and investment climate on the continent.

AUC, IEA and partners should consider forming a Taskforce on climate financing solutions for the African energy community that could present its recommendations at the COP 26 in 2021.

The outcomes of this Ministerial Forum will be shared with African Union and IEA member state leaders, as well as the leaders of international financial institutions and other global decision-makers, business leaders and key stakeholders. In addition, these outcomes will help guide future activities linked to enhancing the strong AUC-IEA partnership and inform the IEA’s continued deepening of its engagement with key decision-makers from governments, the private sector, investors and other leading regional institutions across the continent. 

As the co-chairs of this event, we would like to thank all participants for their active engagement and constructive contributions.

Signed,

  • Amani Abou-Zeid, Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy, African Union
  • Fatih Birol, Executive Director, IEA
  • Gwede Mantashe, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, South Africa 

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