The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) works to accelerate sustainable deployment and use of all forms of renewable energy globally. Since its establishment in 2011, IRENA’s membership has grown include 180 members, including the states in accession phase and the European Union. In the few years since the Agency’s creation, the global energy landscape has witnessed a rapid and far reaching transformation. Renewable energy is experiencing unprecedented growth due to a virtuous cycle of technological innovation and drastic cost reductions, driven by enabling policies. Solar PV module costs for example, have fallen by 80 per cent since 2010, with wind turbine costs falling by up to 40 per cent. IRENA estimates that renewables have accounted for the majority of global power generation capacity additions since 2012.
A transition to sustainable energy will be central to the fight against climate change. Around two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to the supply and use of energy from fossil fuels. These emissions need to drop by a factor of three by 2050. Renewable energy and energy efficiency are the two cornerstones of decarbonisation in the energy sector, with the potential to achieve 90 per cent of the required carbon reductions by 2050, as detailed in Perspectives for the energy transition: Investment needs for a low carbon energy system.
The energy transition is technically and economically feasible. Worldwide more than 9.8 million people were employed in the renewable energy sector in 2016, as renewable energy has become an important engine of economic growth. Cumulative economic growth from accelerated renewable energy deployment from 2015-2050 could amount to approximatively 16.16 trillion Euros1, with 26 million people employed in renewables globally in 2050. Reduction of local air pollution and climate change mitigation are also key considerations. In fact, the health, environmental and climate benefits made possible by the energy transition are six times larger than additional investment needs, which amount to 29 trillion from 2015-2050.
Accelerating the energy transition contributes to tackling climate change and IRENA facilitates international cooperation towards this in several ways. These include: (a) state of the art analyses, such as REmap, Jobs, Costs, Market Design, the joint IRENA/IEA Policies and Measures Database,and developing REmade - the first global reference index on voluntary corporate renewable energy sourcing for all end-uses; (b) expert meetings and events, such as Innovation Week, the Legislators Forum – a forum for policy dialogue between countries, Ministerial Roundtables – a forum for decision-makers, and topic-driven discussions; and (c) advisory services for countries and regions, including Renewables Readiness Assessments, and country-specific REmap analyses.
“Of the four main technology options to reduce energy-related emissions (nuclear, carbon capture and storage, renewable energy, and energy efficiency), renewable energy and energy efficiency have proven to be the most viable options”
In the European Union, IRENA is working closely with European institutions on a 2030 policy package. Of the four main technology options to reduce energy-related emissions (nuclear, carbon capture and storage renewable energy, and energy efficiency), renewable energy and energy efficiency have proven to be the most viable options. Renewable energy has become increasingly cost-effective, with offshore wind in particular experiencing dramatic cost declines in Europe. Illustrative of the increasingly attractive business case for renewables is the rising number of cities, states, and major corporations committing to 100 per cent renewable energy targets, often surpassing national targets. Considering the increasing economic viability of renewable energy, EU Member States have the potential to go well beyond the proposed 27 per cent by 2030 renewable energy target, thereby enabling further economic growth and creating additional jobs. Tapping this additional potential would bring the EU closer to a decarbonisation pathway compatible with its goal of reducing carbon emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 and the 2°C objective established in the Paris Agreement, while improving the health and wellbeing of EU citizens. IRENA’s REmap analysis for the EU to be released late 2017, will further elaborate on the EU’s pathway to decarbonisation.
Similar analysis has been done for other regions such as Southeast Asia and Africa, and for 70 countries covering 90 per cent of global energy demand. This body of work, combined with assessments of renewables in existing intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) to climate change mitigation, can inform the process of INDCs revisions, which begins in 2018. Renewable energy presents countries with unique national growth opportunities and should be seen as a low-risk, high-reward investment.
Moving forward, the role of innovation in decarbonising certain sectors will become increasingly important, as described in Accelerating the Energy Transition through Innovation. In the EU, the path to 2030 is laid out with current technology, however innovation will be required to move beyond this target and slash energy-related emissions threefold by 2050. While cost-competitive low-carbon technologies for the power sector exist today, continued innovation will enhance their performance, further reduce their costs and help scale-up the deployment of the best available technologies. In end-use sectors (buildings, industry and transport), strengthened research, development and demonstration efforts are especially needed to improve the business case for currently available technologies and to develop new solutions for applications for which few sustainable options exist today. Sector coupling, battery storage, electric vehicles, and information and communication technology, among others, will all play a greater role moving forward, and all require increased attention to ensure a tripling of renewable energy share by 2050.
The next challenge is the large-scale deployment and integration of renewable energy technologies in energy systems. Addressing this challenge requires innovation beyond technology development, including new ways to operate energy systems, industrial processes, emerging infrastructure and business models. To enable these innovations, governments must set the stage for private-sector innovation through credible long-term policy signals and assist innovation in areas where the private sector lacks specific capacity or reach, such as certain enabling infrastructure. International cooperation on innovation has an important role to play, but needs to be further enhanced through initiatives such as Mission Innovation (see page 10), which seeks to strengthen international clean energy RD&D to further reduce costs. Initiatives such as Horizon 2020, the EU framework programme for research and innovation, have been successful in increasing RD&D funding, but more is needed as we look to meet long-term decarbonisation goals.
R&D priority areas in energy use sectors
Source: IRENA (2017) Accelerating the energy transition through innovation
The role of renewables will be even more critical moving forward, enabling the reduction of emissions that will be needed in the coming decades. The renewable energy sector is highly dynamic and international exchange is essential to find the best energy transition pathways at the country level. The fact that IRENA has reached near universal membership in only seven years is an indicator of growing country awareness and interest in renewable energy. Given the importance of energy sector decarbonisation, IRENA will continue to work with its Members and other international and national institutions to accelerate the energy transition to meet long-term climate goals.
“While cost-competitive low-carbon technologies for the power sector exist today, continued innovation will enhance their performance, further reduce their costs and help scale-up the deployment of the best available technologies”
Dolf Gielen is Director of the IRENA Innovation and Technology Centre in Bonn since 2011. He oversees the agency’s work on advising member countries in the area of technology status and roadmaps, energy planning, cost and markets and innovation policy frameworks.
Before joining IRENA, he was Chief of the Energy Efficiency and Policy Unit at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Previously, he was a Senior Energy Technology Policy Analyst at the International Energy Agency.