The Paris Climate Agreement and the inclusion of energy in the Millennium Development Goals were two key moments in 2015, writes Marie-José Nadeau, Chair of the World Energy Council and member of the Advisory Board of the SE4all initiative of the United Nations, which presented a new five-year strategy in Brussels last week. According to Nadeau, this new strategy has the potential to impact the way energy is perceived across the world, in addition to bringing improvements in energy access. This will have important implications for the global energy sector.
As UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim convened the Sustainable Energy for All advisory Board in Brussels this month it is worth looking at how the energy debate has significantly shifted over the past three years. The world is moving inexorably towards increasingly sustainable energy systems, driven by a wide range of factors including the need to decarbonise energy.
The fact that energy is now formally recognised as a fundamental building block of development and has been included in the new Sustainable Development Goals is a major achievement. The World Energy Council was rightly critical at the turn of the century when the Millennium Development Goals singularly failed to address the issue of energy poverty. The recognition in September last year of Sustainable Development Goal number 7 (SDG7) that energy is a fundamental driver for global economies and a catalyst for the opportunities needed to lift the 1.1 billion energy poor was significant.
The level of commitment shown by governments at last December’s Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris, was also something that would not have been expected years before. Countries committed though their Nationally Determined Contributions to significant actions to address climate change. While these actions still fall short of the signal required by many, this is still more that could have been considered in previous years.
More holistic debate
I believe one of the major co-benefits of these two moments of 2015 will be improved energy access for the 1.1 billion people without access to modern forms of energy, but more importantly a more holistic debate about how to develop the right type of energy systems for each geographical region. The solutions being mapped out for the developed world as well as the technology gains will help the different regions implement the right energy solutions.
In many regions, the need to create sustainable energy systems has already led to a major transformation of not just the way energy is generated and used but also the way it is perceived. The World Energy Council’s Energy Trilemma framework and its Index have strongly supported countries across the world in addressing the transition in a pragmatic way by focusing on the triple challenge of energy security, equity and environmental sustainability. This transformation has been driven by a variety of factors ranging from environmental concerns, volatile primary energy prices and technological advances.
In particular, falling renewable energy costs have boosted the availability of low-cost clean energy that provides an added opportunity for developing grass roots energy systems in the developing world. Decentralised and off-grid systems are now increasingly viewed as mainstream energy options that provide a potential road-map for improved energy access in rural areas where historically populations have had to make do with wood stoves and paraffin lamps.
Solar panel prices are now so low that the cost of generating power compares favourably to conventionally-produced power. Likewise, wind turbine costs are coming down. As renewable energy penetration increases, the world is increasingly learning to handle the issues of intermittency by either harnessing other forms of relatively clean energy such as natural gas or, in smaller systems, the availability of improved energy storage systems.
The United Nations Sustainable Energy for All initiative (SEforAll) has helped focus the world’s attention on the lack of access to modern forms of energy for so many people. As it moves into a new phase, the initiative can help mobilise the benefits that have been achieved over the last few years. Energy systems have matured to such a degree that we have a wide range of options for every situation be it isolated rural villages or urban sprawls.
Energy delivery costs are coming down and research undertaken by the World Energy Council suggests that there is capital available for energy infrastructure projects so long as governments put in place transparent frameworks that give the right mix of economic signals that promote investment. Sustainable Energy for All has a role to play to promote the optimal convergence of capital, technology and regulation, helping to identify opportunities and ensure a level playing field.
This article has been republished with permission from Energy Post.
Marie-José Nadeau is Chair of the World Energy Council and a member of the Advisory Board of the Sustainable Energy for All initiative (SEforAll). She spent 22 years in senior executive positions at Hydro-Quebec, Canada’s largest electric utility until her retirement in 2015.
It’s surprising, given Ms. Nadreau’s background, that she does not mention hydro as a preferred form of despatchable backup for the intermittent renewables. It doesn’t work everywhere, and is limited to grids, but even allowing for these constraints it solves a good part of the problem. Example: Brazil.
The WEC misses a trick in not highlighting one very large change in paradigm that renewables bring about. Until now, energy has been fundamentally scarce: wood, fossil fuels, even hydro and geothermal. Wind and solar are plentiful over the inhabited world – there are theoretical limits, but they are far ahead of prospective demand, at current OECD levels of energy use per capita for a peak world population of 10 -11 billion. Our children and grandchildren can look forward to a world of energy plenty, without oil wars, gas blackmail, mine disasters, air pollution, or energy poverty. This has not yet sunk in. The latest Chinese plan includes an objective of limiting all energy use, when the objective that makes sense is simply to reduce the burning of fossil fuels.