Cities are the most ambitious actors of the energy transition

REN21’s Executive Secretary Rana Adib talks about the role of cities in the transition to a low carbon future powered by renewable energy.


Anne-Sophie Garrigou

The Beam’s editor-in-chief, Anne-Sophie Garrigou, reports from COP25 in Madrid


Cities are contributing to almost 75% of global CO2 emissions and are consuming two-thirds of the energy demand worldwide. They are also economic hubs as more than 80% of global gross domestic product (GDP) is created in cities. This information alone demonstrates that cities have a unique role to play in accelerating the sustainable energy transition. “Cities also have direct responsibility for their residents. Their mandates are about ensuring a healthy living environment and addressing air pollution,” explains Rana Adib, Executive Secretary of REN21, a global renewable energy community of actors from science, governments, NGOs and industry that is working to accelerate the transition to renewable energy worldwide.

“We are here to drive renewable energy now, not tomorrow. 2020 is starting in two weeks time. It’s important to be clear on the fact that actions need to happen now,” continues Rana Adib at a side event at COP25 in Madrid. Adib is here to present the eagerly-awaited and first-ever edition of Renewables in Cities Global Status Report that her organisation just released.

One of the main conclusions from this report is that cities have adopted some of the most ambitious commitments for renewables globally. “Renewable energy presents an opportunity for cities to make critical progress at a local level that will improve the lives, health and economic opportunities of residents and visitors alike” explains Rana Adib.

Nine out of 10 people worldwide are regularly exposed to outdoor air pollution and it is responsible for an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths globally. Outdoor air pollution is, therefore, a driver for renewable energy uptake in cities. Mitigating and adapting to climate change, reducing municipal energy costs, supporting local economic development, promoting a stable and secure energy supply and energy access are some of the other reasons why cities are concentrating their efforts to accelerate renewable energy deployment.

Cities are ambitious actors of the energy transition

Cities that are engaged in the energy transition are ambitious. Indeed, their target is often to reach a greater share of renewable energies than their national counterparts. But the cities efforts do not stop at the power sector. Rana Adib adds: “On the local level, cities can scale up renewable integration for municipal buildings, they can integrate renewable energy in district energy networks but they can also switch municipal fleets to biofuels and electric vehicles.”

According to Rana Adib, cities are agents of change and can become real actors of this energy transition. “They are influencing players beyond the municipal layers and have a role to play in contributing to accelerate national targets.” But cities can’t advance the renewable energy transition in isolation, they need the support of national governments to realise the transition to a low carbon future.

Citizens are at the heart of cities

According to REN21 finding, citizen engagement is key for the success of the energy transition. “The nature of renewable energy empowers citizens to become key players in the energy transition,” explains Rana Adib, to support the idea that citizens can actively shape the renewable energy infrastructure of their cities.

Renewable energy has seen the emergence of prosumers (a person that not only consumes but produces a product or service, in that case: energy). These are, in most cases, people who install solar panels on their roofs to produce a share of household electricity needs, while exporting the surplus to the grid or using battery technology to store it.

The report also notes the emergence of community renewable energy projects. These communities are flourishing all across the world, from Germany to Canada, Japan, Thailand, or the United Staes. 100 of these community energy projects are active in Australia. In Sydney, a group of citizens called Inner West Community Energy has supplied information and technical support for a variety of projects, including a 50 kW solar PV system installed on a parking facility that connects to three EV charging stations. Pingala group (which we featured in The Beam before), also based in Sydney, sets up collectively owned solar gardens to help reduce the electricity bills of residents who own shares in the project.

For Rana Adib and her team at REN21, “it is essential that city residents are on board with any transition to renewables”, and citizen engagement is a crucial means of gaining public support for the energy transition and for driving more-ambitious goals at the national level.