Tipping point for renewables is uncertain, but will be sooner – Amin

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Jason Bordoff of the Columbia Energy Exchange, in a podcast conversation from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, talked with Adnan Amin, the Director General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) about renewable energy – its dramatic cost declines; large annual growth rates as well as its share in the global fuel mix. OGN obtained the podcast and presents its excerpts.

Jason Bordoff: Thank you for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange. Pleasure to have you.

Adnan Amin: Great pleasure to be here.

Jason Bordoff: I want you to start by talking about IRENA. I think some of our audience may be familiar with it. Some not. Talk a little bit about the mission of the organization, its history and what its main activities are.

Adnan Amin: It’s very interesting thing. It’s first of all the world’s newest organization. It’s a treaty based organization and in historical terms, in terms of accession of countries to this legal agreement which makes them a member of the organization has been one of the fastest historically. And I think the reason is because the creation of the organization came at a time when the possibilities of renewable energy were becoming none and there was a need for an international collaborative platform where experience could be shared.

But also a neutral venue where you could really develop a knowledge framework about what renewable energy was, the technology, the constant innovation process is and all that was happening. But the most for renewable started long time ago. I think, if you remember, right back to the first international UN conference on new and renewable sources was in 1978. It didn’t go very far. It was very expensive at the time. But subsequently there was a group of Europeans and Herman Schwan of Germany who was a parliamentarian was one of the most well-known was very passionate about this issue. It was a time when Germany was taking the lead on renewables development. And momentum started pushing for an international organization. But it took a decade and a half before it achieved, because in the early days, it was still considered by many countries as a luxury for the rich.

It was not the technology that was viable for others. But things started to change. Cost started to fall. Knowledge about renewables increased and more and more countries came into the fold. And Germany which had been leading this process had felt that the intergovernmental process, it was natural that the agency would be based in Germany. Then came the United Arab Emirates.

Jason Bordoff: This is what you’re, now they’re negotiating where to put it?

Adnan Amin: The founding conference was held in 2009. The decision on the agency was taken in 2010. And after an extremely intensive and very successful lobbying campaign, the decision was in favour of the UAE. So, people were a little bit puzzled by this. Why would an oil exporting country that had become fabulously wealthy from oil and gas and so being interested in a headquarters for an energy agency and it’s a very interesting story.

Actually it was summed up for me in a statement I heard much later. I was at the government summit which is held every year in Dubai. Very extraordinary place. And the crown prince of Abu Dhabi who really speaks in public was making a speech and he was addressing his people. And the thing he said was that you know, we should ask ourselves to question that what happens to our country when we export the last barrel of oil? How should we feel? I said, the answer I’m looking for is that we should feel happy. We should feel happy because we’ve diversified our economy. We’ve invested in alternative energy. We’ve educated our people and we’ve created a sustainable economic framework for the future of Abu Dhabi.

Jason Bordoff: You should feel happy, I presume, if you export the last barrel of oil on your terms. Not because you’re still dependent on that but the world’s moved off of demand for oil?

Adnan Amin: That’s it.

Jason Bordoff: And you’re saying that’s the motivation to try to be?

Adnan Amin: You know, one of the interesting things that I found over the last couple of years in particular is that there is a growing realization among countries that are major oil economies that this change is coming. The public discussion is very much about how it can be prolonged in the 30 year horizon. This is a common position that’s taken because anything else would immediately affect the markets. But there is a private realization that this is happening.

Jason Bordoff: How widespread and real do you think that is? I mean, just today for example, you often hear His Excellency Khalid A. Al-Falih, in Saudi Arabia, the energy minister talk about his concern that we’re not investing enough in supply today because prices have fallen to meet demand 5 or 10 years down the road. That assumes a robust demand outlook. So, I mean, how seriously do you think the producing countries take the idea of the world might be moving off of this sooner than we think?

Adnan Amin: Just take Saudi Arabia, so Khalid Al-Falih, actually invited me last year to attend the renewable energy conference when they announced a capacity target of 9.5 gigawatts by 2030. Subsequently, we’ve had the brief, the investment forum.

Jason Bordoff: Investment forum?

Adnan Amin: We have the signing of an agreement between the UAE and, sorry, between Saudi Arabia and Softbank for 200 gigawatt of solar. I think the idea is that they want to launch a new industrialization drive and part of that would be fed by developing and indigenous solar industry that has value added in the market. So that’s a very major commitment. We’ll have to see how it spans out over time in terms of implementation.

But if you look at major oil economies, the UAE has a target of 40% renewable electricity by 2015. The Russian Federation has launched their tenders last year for 2.9 gigawatts of renewable energy mostly wind. I’ve been to Moscow a couple of times, met searches of the Moscow State University. They have tremendous depth in science and technology. They are working on innovation in Peroxide Solar and all kinds of aspects of the electrical system that can carry renewable energy. So, I think, there is a very strong realization that the change is coming. Nobody can tell you for certain when the tipping point will be. But more and more analysis, we’re seeing including from the financial sector and big investors is that they expect that tipping point to come sooner and sooner.

Jason Bordoff: You mentioned Peroxide Solar. I’m curious, we’ve seen such dramatic cost declines in renewable energy in recent years. Where do you see that going and how much of that is driven just by scale and the economics of driving down the cost of existing technology and what do you see for real advances in the technology with things like Peroxide or many other possibilities?

Adnan Amin: Well, if you take silicon PV. In the last ten years, it’s fallen by about 80%. The levelized cost of electricity in the last seven or eight years from solar has come down by 73%. We’re projecting on the basis of looking at 1500 utility scale investments around the world. Looking at the cost of technology and projecting from that, that this trend will continue. We’ll see with the next decade another 60% decline and this is at a time when solar in more and more countries around the world is generating electricity at three US dollar cents kilowatt hour. That’s cost competitive anywhere.

You know, the latest project was 350 megawatt of solar PV in Abu Dhabi for 2.4 dollar cents kilowatt hour. So, the trend is downwards. It’s driven as you said by scale, efficiency in manufacturing, innovation and technology. But it’s also driven by the fact that there is a more of an understanding about the financing of solar projects. It’s becoming more reliable than the technology.

So, the cost of financing is going down. It’s also driven by the fact that governments are now trying to look at a subsidy free future and looking at new policy instruments. So, event of the auctions has really driven down the cost of renewables with wind and solar. It’s a mixture of policy instruments, financing instruments and technology development that you’re seeing and is driving the cost down and that will continue.

Jason Bordoff: And, how dependent on policy is that? It sounds like you’re saying renewables are at a point where they compete in many, maybe not all the time but much of the time without subsidies?

Adnan Amin: Yes, more and more markets, they are competing without subsidies.

Jason Bordoff: So, is it to continue to grow policy dependent or no?

Adnan Amin: To some extent yes. I think there are markets where policy will play a major role. But basically creating a marketplace that’s a level playing field for different types of technologies.

Jason Bordoff: Does this mean like a carbon price or you just mean even without that?

Adnan Amin: Well, for example, you know, if you take subsidies and fossil fuels, it’s about $500 billion a year. Subsidies to renewables are about one-fifth of that.

Jason Bordoff: Anyhow, it’s consumption subsidies. That is just the production. The fact that market prices don’t reflect?

Adnan Amin: But nevertheless, subsidy has the same economic impact on the market whether it’s producer or a consumer subsidy. So, it incentivizes consumption if you address the subsidy issue. The second is the externalities. It’s always been a real issue, how do you integrate the cost of externalities in economic policy. The fact that millions of people die from air pollution every year is not a cost that goes to the producers of fossil fuels. It goes to society.

So, I think that in some markets where renewables are still beginning to penetrate, there will be need for some kind of policy support. Not substantial because the cost of technology is coming down. I think the real challenge that we are looking at in the future is that the cost of electricity from renewables with zero marginal cost is going to come further and further down and the real issue is going to be relatively cheap or almost free electricity. What does that mean for the business models throughout the energy industry?

Jason Bordoff: That’s a question a lot of people are talking about?

Adnan Amin: Massive.

Jason Bordoff: Yeah. So what’s the answer?

Adnan Amin: I think that we’re beginning to see that there are utilities in Europe that have begun to adapt in the United States. They are looking at more of a service model. They are looking at integrating new streams of income into their models. They are looking at how do you administer a smart grid when you have large scale adoption of electric mobility, electric vehicles. What does that mean in terms of storage and how do you provide electricity new ways?

There is a lot of discussion about who is going to maintain infrastructure of all of these and how the cost of that is going to be apportioned. But these are all emerging issues and we’ve seen that those utilities that were slow to adapt to the situation in the past, they lost immense market capitalization in a very short period of time and have to completely retrench their business. So you know, I think the solutions are still emerging. But this is an issue that’s going to be on the agenda for a while.

Jason Bordoff: So what does it take to change that, to actually see real steep declines which is what something like a target would require in fossil fuel consumption because even with the very optimistic numbers you talked about for renewables today, it’s leading to low carbon additions to the energy stack because energy demand is growing so much. Not yet displacing very large amounts of fossil fuels.

Adnan Amin: Well, I think that we are approaching the tipping point where that is going to happen much quicker than anybody expected, I personally believe. Cost decline is part of it. Part of it is that many countries are only now becoming aware of the potential that renewable energy holds for them. We are seeing more and more emerging economies making ambitious policies now. We are looking at this whole issue of the Paris agreement and the national commitments of countries made in pursuance of Paris agreement and the NDCs actually have underestimated the commitments that already exist. But you’re right. If we have a business as usual.

Jason Bordoff: And yet many countries are not on track to meet their NDCs?

Adnan Amin: No.

Jason Bordoff: Yeah, you agree with that?

Adnan Amin: They don’t. Yeah. But I think, I think really the secret for the NDCs is going to be…

Jason Bordoff: NDCs are the…?

Adnan Amin: Nationally Determined Contributions. Nationally Determined Contributions for the Paris target. I think the momentum for the NDCs will come when you establish an investment platform that actually supports implementation of NDCs. When they are mainly aspirational, you know, anything can happen, they are not on track whatever. But one area where that is actually possible is in energy and in renewables in particular as well as efficiency. I think these are the two parts of the equation and they come together in a compelling way are going to really shift the needle.

So, I think there is room for ambition. The framework is being set. What I think we’re going to see is if we just look at the business as usual scenario which is the commitments that exist on the table right now. We’re only going to increase renewables by 2030 by 3%. If you look at the momentum that we are seeing in the marketplace in terms of financial flows, commitments to decarbonization, new investment platforms that are coming on screen, new funds that are being created for this.

And the fact that this is a very profitable business case associated with the renewables. This is going to move very, very quickly. The impediments right now are two. One is there is not enough knowledge about system integration of variable renewables. We know that there are systems that have been able to integrate up to 50, 60% without any problem at all when Germany, shows that, that’s possible in more and more countries, in Denmark and others. So, I think that’s a solvable issue. But I think in terms of countries understanding how renewables can get into the end use sectors because that’s where the bulk of energy utilization is – heating, cooling, buildings, industry and transportation. That’s where the real change begin to happen. And we’ve begin to see the beginning of that. I think electric mobility is going to move very, very quickly. The issue for electric mobility is it going to be fuelled by electricity run by coal or by renewables.

I think more and more renewable energy in the system is going to fuel electric mobility because electric mobility is also a huge enabler for system flexibility. And the advent of grid scale storage which is basically got electric vehicles can be. We are seeing experiments in Europe and other places which are showing the way. So, all of these is happening quite quickly. The efficiency gains and the economic gains you will have from this transition are pretty substantial. We’ve done some micro economic modelling of what the good scenario here could be. And we see by 2015 that if we are able to, you know, reach around 60% to 70% of renewables, we can actually add substantially to global GDP by a factor of about 1%.

Jason Bordoff: We have this debate often about a 100 per cent renewables that are feasible, sensible. California recently passed a law requiring the state to get a 100% of its electricity from carbon free sources not specific to renewables. What are your thoughts about that idea, a 100 per cent renewables? What are the potential roadblocks or the risks? Is it from intermittency to reliability, the materials to labour, what are the challenges that sort of continue to scale at higher and higher penetration rates?

Adnan Amin: Well, first of all, I think technically, it is feasible in some settings, not all. It’s a very attractive idea. It has great traction in the public mind. We don’t use it as an agency, as a rallying point. Although, we support countries and you know, small states that have decided to go 100% renewables because for them, it makes sense. What we talk about is rapid adoption and transformation based on renewable energy and energy efficiency. I think the California target is an extremely important one. It’s coming into the public debate at a particular time historically.

But you also have to take into account that California on its own is probably the sixth biggest economy in the world. For the sixth biggest economy in the world to declare a 100% clean energy target is a huge thing. So, I think that’s the kind of spirit that we like to see and I think we wish them well and we are looking forward to learning more about it.

Jason Bordoff: We see aggressive policy actions like that in places, you know like California, parts of Europe, New York is taking a lot of action on renewables. I wanted to ask you about the part of the world you come from, developing parts of the world….like Africa or Southeast Asia or elsewhere where the grid fails to reach rural areas, we’ve seen solar powered mini grids become sustainable solutions in parts of the world. What do you see as the, what’s different about the way we should think about the opportunities and the challenges for renewables in emerging markets?

Adnan Amin: I think first of all, you should not underestimate what happens in developing countries. Many of these countries already have substantial shares of renewables in the system. For example in Kenya, we rely tremendously on hydro, that’s a major part of the system. We have now substantial investment in geothermal. I think Kenya is now the fifth biggest geothermal country in the world after the traditional ones. We have very ambitious plans for the future. So I think as, you know, in terms of the mainstream, in terms of grid connected electricity, we are seeing momentum towards renewables because the cost of renewables is now something that’s very affordable.

But also it brings secondary economic benefits, you know, it enhances employment. It adds value in the economy. It creates manufacturing industry. I was just in Morocco and the impact in that area of the major solar investment they have there has been substantial in terms of income generation, in terms of employment and in terms of manufacturing of some of the components that go into some of these plants. So, I think a lot of countries are looking at that and I was in Egypt last year and I’m going back in a couple of weeks to follow-up on that because we’ve been doing a major study for Egypt on renewables. I met with president el-Sisi who was remarkably well informed about renewables. But the most interesting thing he told me, we discuss renewables program but he said, for Egypt, my real issue is that we have a million young people every year coming into the labour market. If we cannot find a way to employ them gainfully, we are going to have a major social and political issue in the future and he’s absolutely right.

And that’s the same for more and more developing countries and I’m not saying that renewables is a silver bullet. But it’s a major component of industrial plan for growth and employment generation in many of these developing countries. So that’s the formal part. Now, for the off grid access. This is actually a great story. You can look at it two ways. You can continue to use the same figure which is important. 1.1 billion people, we’ve had in every conference. 1.1 billion people don’t have it.

Jason Bordoff: Access to energy?

Adnan Amin: Yes, access to energy. How fast this is growing. And we started by looking not at the energy statistics because we can find this there. We looked at the trade statistics to see the penetration of off grid solar in Africa for instance. In the last five years, access, the number of people connected to off grid solar has increased from around 5 or 6 million to about 50 million in the last five or six years. In Asia, it’s gone up from about 6 million to about 72 million. There is a remarkable growth here about 140 million people today that are served by off grid electricity. We are seeing business models for pay as you go which are delivering better and better value every year. They are competitive with the grid.

Normally for off grid access from conventional sources like diesel because consumers in developing countries would pay up to 40 or 50 times what people were paying from grid electricity. It was unaffordable. But you see now is that pay-as-you-go model standalone modules, household modules are improving in efficiency. We have, you know, companies like Mobisol and others in Kenya that are now distributing this at scale. It makes absolute sense for people to invest in this but at a cost that is being provided. And they are also innovating in terms of developing really efficient appliances where you can have television, you can have lights, you can have efficient refrigerator. Transforming people’s lives in rural areas. But also lowering cost as they go along.

So, the penetration of this is increasing. I think what we really need is to find strategies of how we are going to resource this momentum in the future. And we are doing a major off grid renewable energy conference in Singapore later this year. We expect to have a lot of the kind of leading innovative companies who are doing this coming together to see how we can scale this up. But this is a development policy at its best. Development policy is not getting the few million from one donor or another to do pet projects here or there. It is to create a stimulus and momentum in economy and to apply financing to make that happen. So, I think this really presents major opportunity for dramatically changing people’s lives.

Jason Bordoff: One of the areas at the Center on Global Energy Policy, we spend a lot of time studying and researching what’s often lumped together as energy geo-politics. And then you talk about energy geo-politics for decades as it has been the case. Talk a little bit about the work that you’re doing and how do you think about this issue.

Adnan Amin: You know, we’ve been a formal organization for around seven and a half years. And over that period, every indicator has showed that we are moving towards a transitional phase that is going to be quite consequential for how countries deal with each other on energy which is the geopolitical aspect. I was at school, I was at high school when we had the oil embargo. I remember, I was in England, so I went through it. It was not very pleasant. But going to university after that and in my professional life, the discussion on the geopolitics of energy has always been dominated until today by discussions about oil and gas and by planes and supplier routes and military deployments and relationship between states and the producer, consumer dialogue and you know, the conventional thing and it still continues.

Jason Bordoff: It’s happening today. Iran has its back against the law with sanctions, what will they do in the strait?

Adnan Amin: Exactly. I’ll come to that in a minute because I had a very fascinating discussion with the energy minister of Iran a couple of years ago about this particular issue, no longer there. But he made a very interesting point. But imagine now, we are going to a situation where we are moving to an energy source that is indigenous. So, countries have their own energy. What the competition then becomes about is not about the movement of energy supplies from producers to consumers, the prices of that and the strategic considerations around that. It becomes about how do you lower cost? How do you become competitive? How do you ensure resilience in your systems and how do you achieve energy independence and then what does energy trade become?

We say, often and many people have seen even in the ONS are beginning to say this, is that the future is electricity. If the future is electricity and the large part of that electricity is generated by renewables, then you get to a situation where you know, electricity, the energy trade is going to be wires and not pipelines. It’s going to be based on abundance and not scarcity. It’s going to be based on cost and innovation and technology rather than who can dig more of this out of the ground. So, that’s a fundamental change. And that raises a number of issues and if you look at the world today, I spend a lot of time in different country but China in particular, you see immense investment in China looking forward in terms of what the energy future of that country is going to be like.

We did a kind of assessment of the Chinese strategy on renewable energy. We did this together with Chinese institutions. The outcome of that actually went into last five year plan. And we project a very ambitious 25% to Chinese total was around 23%. And I remember a dialogue with ministry officials, public dialogue where I said look, we’re being conservative with the 25% estimate because we believe more is achievable and he said, yes we know it is. But we don’t want to say it publicly right now. But if you see the dynamism of innovation and investment that is happening, the state grid of China for example.

Jason Bordoff: Talk about what motivates that. I thinks it’s important because it’s actually remarkable in a discussion about renewables?

Adnan Amin: That’s a major motivation for China which is the industrial policy part of it. But there is another motivation. There is the quality of life and the impact of pollution has become a political issue in China. If there is one thing that can grab the attention of the communist party of China, it is public perception of pollution, impact on health. Pollution of water, all of these to do with energy. So, I think these two are the most powerful motivators but they have responded to this in an extraordinary way. If you look at the state grid of China, so we have a collaboration with the state grid of China. They are passing a number of areas including assistance to developing countries looking at their grid infrastructure. They have deployed 400 million smart meters. They don’t make a big deal of it but smart meters in the advent of the smart grid is a reality in China. They’ve innovated ultrahigh voltage transmission lines. They are able to now connect the generating regions in the west to the remote centers in the east and to have it done very efficiently with minimum loss of electricity.

That has yielded tremendous momentum in their industrial strategy and in Chinese company. I will give you one example. I know, a little bit the company called Envision. I’m sure that you’re familiar with it. So, they started off as wind turbine manufacturing and deployment. They’ve now moved into digitalization of energy. They’ve started acquiring assets in battery storage. They recently bought the Nissan battery component. They are investing strategically in storage technologies in European companies. They are accessing that knowledge and they are creating a framework for investment for the future that provides what they call the internet of electricity. And that is going to be based on low cost renewable power. So, I think in terms of strategic view of the future, the Chinese have understood the centrality of energy and the fact that the sustainability of their growth model is going to rely on more and more energy independence than rather than being at this subject to the vagaries of the international market for fossil fuels.

Jason Bordoff: Let me ask on Chinese, how big a political issue air pollution is and the steps they are taking to move, to deal with that and we’ve seen this year and last year significant policy, effort to for example phase out coal fired boilers. One of the things they did to achieve that nearly 50% growth in LNG demand in China last year. So natural gas has played a big role in their ability to in the last few years take some of these efforts to reduce the use of coal. We are seeing more competition around the world in gas which brings prices down. Does that help renewables? Does that undermines renewables?

Adnan Amin: I don’t think it undermines renewables. In fact, if you took note, General Electric which probably produced best gas turbines in the world just stopped doing that. That has to say something. So, I think that there is a perspective for LNG especially when it remains so cheap given the competitive momentum that we are seeing. But I think in terms of electricity, the cost declines in renewables are going to be the dominant trend in electricity. That’s without doubt. Gas, I think as more and more countries are looking at, one as a transitional fuel and that is becoming less and less the case. But they are also looking at it in terms of generation of hydrogen and so on. Many other uses for low carbon freight heating and cooling and so on.

So, I think there is a coexistence. The objective is to decarbonize as much as possible and the least polluting fossil fuel is gas. So, for the time that we need gas, it has to be available at the cost that you’re seeing in the market these days. But that’s not going to be forever because I think electricity is going to move so fast with renewables, the advent of electric mobility is going to change a lot of things and we are seeing now.

There is a huge momentum in China now to utilize geothermal for heating in the emerging cities of China. I was in Hebei province recently. We met with the governor. That was shortly after the last party congress that took place in Beijing and the whole issue was going to work with the government of province of Hebei to create a low carbon Olympics for the winter Olympics in four years’ time. The road map of how we get there. And renewables, including geothermal are going to be a central part of that. So, they want to have absolutely clean air in the environments of Beijing and in Hebei province for the Olympics and it’s fully achievable.

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