If the sustainable energy sector could be summarized by a snappy slogan, it might be: democratization, decentralization, digitization.
“The renewable energy system is agile, it’s decentralized. It belongs to people. It’s a democratization of energy,” says Mr. Adnan Z. Amin, Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). He also emphasizes new opportunities inherent in the management of such systems. “Digitalization is going to be at the heart of the [renewables] revolution.”
In spotlighting these ‘three Ds,’ Mr. Amin echoes the sentiment of his peers at Expo 2017 Astana: clean energy is inexpensive, poised for digital exploitation, and generated at a local level.
Not only is such green power systemically decentralized, but approaches to the energy transition (from fossil fuels to renewables) vary from country to country — depending on everything from a territory’s available space and capital, to its weather patterns.
Accordingly, events like this expo — the first to take place in the region — act as vital international conduits for sharing different points of view and expertise in renewables.
Featuring the pavilions of 115 countries, and organizations and companies, Expo 2017 Astana — which Dr. Joshua Walker, President & CEO of the USA Pavilion dubs “The Olympics of soft power” — showcases commonalities and contrasts in how the public and private sectors worldwide are navigating the energy transition.
The host country literally launched the solar-arrayed Mir — the first modular space station assembled in orbit. Yet, it may still seem an unlikely renewable energy flag bearer with its abundance of oil. However, as Kazakhstan — a Paris climate agreement signatory — leads the call for clean energy in the region, it is not alone in its class.
“Oil-producing countries are starting to invest in clean energy and R&D around it,” says Mr. Amin, citing Russia and Saudi Arabia. In May, it was announced that Russia would host its largest sustainable energy auction — which would see companies awarded contracts to buy 1.9 GW of clean electricity. Early this year, Saudi Arabia launched a renewables program with a close to $50 billion investment in 9.5 GW of solar and wind power.
Its neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, has arguably been a sustainable energy trailblazer. Masdar City — its zero-carbon planned community in Abu Dhabi, designed by leading architects Foster + Partners — broke ground nearly a decade ago and is also now the headquarters of IRENA.
But the UAE is already looking ahead to 2030 and the completion of its next ambitious green project — the 5,000 MW capacity Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park — part of a sustainable strategy which aims to provide 75 percent of Dubai’s power output from clean energy by 2050. Boasting a diverse energy mix, the Emirates is also invested in biofuels research at its Masdar Institute, with assistance from M.I.T.
The UAE seems particularly well-suited to large solar parks and plants. “One of the advantages is we have lots of open areas in the desert that we’ve been using. You need space to lay the solar panels,” explains Mr. Mansour Al Mansouri, Director General, National Media Council, UAE. Renewable energy has become a welcome addition to Emirates residents’ lifestyles — with electric vehicles (EV) and related charging and parking provisions readily available, he adds.
Locally, Astana residents will be invited to usher the sustainable revolution into their lives when the Expo 2017 site reaches its post-event legacy phase — transforming into a renewable commercial, residential and retail community. Then it will pass the ‘expo torch’ to the UAE as Dubai is set to host the next event in 2020.
Participants in Expo 2017 Astana include not only nations and governments, but corporate power players like Shell, as well as (USA Pavilion sponsors) ExxonMobil and GE, who are also involved through organized forums and their own distinct pavilions.
“Many people don’t know that the largest ethanol biofuel producer in Brazil is Shell,” notes Dr. Jozef Toth, President, World Petroleum Council (WPC). Brazil is among the largest global producers of sugar cane (which yields the biofuel ethanol).
He sees a continuing role for biofuels along with other renewables, as the energy transition plays out, and explains that this year’s annual World Petroleum Congress in Istanbul, hosted by his London-based not-for-profit organization, features a dedicated biofuels section.
The fate of EVs is something Dr. Toth and the WPC member countries are keeping close tabs on. Their widespread proliferation would eventually scrap the need for biofuels. He sees Norway — a country with a strong environmentalist culture, already benefiting from cheaper hydropower — as on the vanguard of this sector. “Just an expectation: it will be the first country to decide, let’s say by 2030, not to allow more new gasoline or diesel-fueled cars [on the road],” he predicts.
“The Chinese are going to put six million electric vehicles on the road by 2023,” Mr. Amin projects, adding that management of this and other stored and distributed energy through smart grids or meters will revolutionize current standards. “Where the real excitement is happening in terms of innovation, is in the digitalization of energy.”
Although China — the world’s biggest renewables market — and the United States are still leading in actual renewables investment and capacity additions, countries like Honduras or Morocco have invested the most in renewables on a GDP per capita basis, according to the UNECE Renewable Energy Status Report 2017.
“[This] shows you that it’s a huge development opportunity for countries who you would never associate as energy leaders, but they are recognizing this chance,” says Mr. Martin Hullin, Project Manager, REN21, which partnered with the UNECE on the annual account.
Another bright spot, he says is job creation — a statement which is backed by IRENA’s finding that 2016 saw 9.8 million people employed directly and indirectly in the renewable energy sector globally. This figure is expected to double by 2030.
Engineering expertise is needed for equipment installation and maintenance. And, as Mr. Hullin notes: “What we see quickly appearing on the horizon are the service and I.T. jobs associated with the transition towards a digitization of the energy sector — which is a totally new thing.”
The lion’s share of innovation — in renewables, digitization and big data management convergence — is coming out of emerging economies in India, China and Africa, according to Mr. Amin. In Kenya, for example, M-PESA, an app created to deal with financial transactions, has been retooled to facilitate remote-managed off-grid renewable energy solutions.
In the tech world, giants like Google, Apple and Facebook are powering the transition — with Google poised to utilize 100 percent renewable energy in its worldwide operations by year’s end. “We have 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies that have sustainable energy as part of their forward-looking portfolios,” adds Mr. Amin. This not only conveys strong demand for renewable energy to developers, but also reflects positively on businesses.
Mr. Amin sees the public sector establishing a stable, enabling framework that gets the risk profile and long-term return on capital right for investors. Then, the private sector must provide substantial funding to boost future energy innovation on a grand scale. Equally, a new form of financial structuring must be put in place to address a burgeoning energy economy whose investments are front loading (with no marginal costs down the line).
”We’re seeing huge interest in the private sector — technology companies, developers — everybody’s flocking to this,” enthuses Mr. Amin. As such, Expo 2017 serves as a ‘meeting of the minds’ space where representatives of such companies as Samsung, NCOC, JCS and Samruk-Energy, organizations like the UN and countries all over the world share their visions of future energy.
Offshore wind has been a hotbed of innovation and as a result, costs are going down substantially in this wind power sector. China, Northern Europe, East Asia and the United States, in particular have been increasingly investing in this transformative area.
The benefits of farming wind offshore includes the capacity to use much larger turbines which can generate electricity at lower costs, and avoidance of issues around public acceptance. Two of the world’s biggest offshore wind farm projects are based in the North Sea — Holland’s Gemini wind park and the United Kingdom’s upcoming Hornsea Project Two.