“Living in a world that is fuelled with 100% renewables is doable!”

An interview with Rana Adib, Executive Secretary at REN21

© Picture above: Géraldine Aresteanu

Words

Anne-Sophie Garrigou

This interview with Rana Adib was featured in The Beam #10 – Local Heroes of the Energy Transition. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


 

“Living in a world that is fuelled with 100% renewables is doable! But it is only doable in time, if policies and regulatory frameworks set the right market rules.”

 

“Technically, it is completely possible to provide 100% renewable energy to cover all our energy needs and it is extremely important to inform and to raise awareness for what renewable energy can provide.” Rana Adib, Executive Secretary at REN21, shared this with us when we interviewed her for The Beam Podcast recently.

When REN21 was created in 2005, the climate was not the only driver for the organisation, an international policy network of players dedicated to building a sustainable energy future with renewables. Renewables create a resilient system and are an excellent opportunity for developing countries to build up energy infrastructures in a much quicker way and to address energy access, explained Rana during our interview. In the past couple of years, she’s been glad to see an increasing awareness about the climate urgency, and the need to move from a conventional system to a renewable system. “We need to make sure that renewable energy becomes the conventional fuel of tomorrow,” she explains. Here, in a separate interview, we talk about the remaining challenges of achieving a 100% renewable energy future and the lack of ambition to decarbonise the energy system.

***

Thank you so much for your time Rana, it’s a real pleasure to feature your interview here! First, I wanted to ask you a bit more about your story. Where does your commitment to development, sustainable energy and for the protection of the environment come from? 

The path to development and sustainable energy, but also, working in a multi-stakeholder network did not always seem ‘intended’, but seems, a posteriori, the most obvious. I’m a cultural hybrid. My mother is Belgian, my father Lebanese. The war in Lebanon started when I was a kid and I grew up in Germany. All this taught me many things: norms are not the same everywhere; the location we live in influences the opportunities we have; geopolitics have a major influence. But most importantly it taught me how essential it is to bridge different ways of thinking, to see the world from different perspectives, in order to find solutions, both individually and collectively.

Professionally I was attracted early on to the international development field. After school, I chose to become an industrial engineer. In my first job, I worked on renewable energy for energy access, microcredit and business models for rural electrification, which was at that time a very technical topic. From there, I worked on water, waste, waste-to-energy, then back to sustainable energy. My passion was always the human being which over time evolved to also understand the importance of our environment for humans.

Today, I would say that my job at REN21 is a perfect fit: REN21 is a network and community of human beings, from different interest groups, that think in different ways, but work together; collaborating on a topic that is highly relevant for the environment and for sustainable development.


From that experience, working at REN21, could you tell us a little bit more about the importance of both mobilising people around the topic and of bridging to other sectors?

Historically, energy is discussed predominantly from the supply side, the generation and distribution of electricity, the production and supply of fuels. However, energy is everywhere.  We all consume energy in our activities, in private and public spaces (houses, cities), in how we move (transport), in the production of goods (industry) and in what we eat (agriculture). The energy transition requires both, reducing our demand for energy, i.e. using energy more efficiently, and replacing the energy source with renewable energy.  The decisions that energy consumers make, whether we speak about individual consumers, the public entities, corporations or sectors, are key in advancing the transition towards a sustainable energy system. 

Today, energy consumers can take a more active role, but also need to be considered and integrated into the decision-making process. People can become directly involved in energy generation (prosuming, aggregation), making more informed choices about the energy in our daily lives (changing energy provider to one that uses renewables, using public transport), or making a conscious effort to decarbonise (replacing a gas boiler with heat pump, buying EVs). We are moving away from traditional linear energy systems in which large utilities dominate and consumers are at the end of a long decision-making change with very little say in the process. 

Considering the climate urgency, people’s engagement is also crucial for another reason: people vote. By voicing their support for renewable energy, citizens can put pressure on policymakers to raise their ambition in addressing climate change and give these policymakers ‘legitimacy’ to make unpopular decisions. Unfortunately, in many countries, influence from interest groups that are worried about losing position or have the impression that they will lose out in the course of the energy transition is still dominant. So it is even more important for civil society that supports the transition towards renewables be more vocal. International examples show that it works: Fridays for Future raised the awareness for the climate urgency and contributed to the ecological vote during the European elections. In the Netherlands, an NGO used the court to force the government to take climate change seriously and cut carbon emissions. Similar initiatives are underway elsewhere.

“The decisions that energy consumers make, whether we speak about individual consumers, the public entities, corporations or sectors, are key in advancing the transition towards a sustainable energy system.”

What else would you say is contributing to shaping the energy debate today and what’s your place in this conversation at REN21?

There are many aspects that shape the energy debate: cost, energy security, climate change, air pollution, jobs, etc. Globally, the energy debate today is shaped or framed, by international climate and sustainable development targets which in turn are shaped by the players involved, geographical location and politics. Considering climate change, there is an urgency to raise the ambition, accelerate the transition and spread knowledge about the opportunities that renewable energy represents.

Our role is to support the rapid uptake of renewable energy technologies to drive a clean and sustainable energy transition. We do this by developing knowledge to provide evidence about the status of policies, market, investment of renewable energy to highlight where more needs to happen. This includes dispelling myths about the cost and efficiency of renewable technologies, highlighting the environmental and social impacts of fossil fuel versus renewable-based systems, and calling attention to the inherent inequitable use of financial resources that are engendered with a fossil fuel-based energy system, e.g. diverting funds that could be used for infrastructure, health, education, for subsidies.

But is also about bridging to other sectors. It is important to inform non-renewable energy sectors about renewable energy, making the benefits of renewable energy relevant to energy-consuming decision-makers, by showing how renewables can contribute to meeting their own objectives. For example, a steady supply of energy is needed to fuel the buses, metros or trains to guarantee a functioning public transport service. 

We carry out the above by working across all the major sectors. This means bringing together governments, multinational organisations, industry, NGOs, research and academia to communicate, build and share knowledge to change how we think about renewables.  


In your experience, what are the main drivers and remaining barriers that underpin renewable energy uptake today?

There are several drivers that are pushing renewable energy uptake and include the falling cost of renewable energy technologies, increased energy security, rising corporate sourcing of renewable and investment by the private sector and private funds. Socio-economic and environmental benefits include local job creation, ensuring energy access, and cleaner air from the reduction of particulates by avoiding burning fossil fuels. Political drivers include climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies and international climate and development targets.

Barriers are a lack of awareness, such as the mistaken perception that renewable energy is too expensive and that variability (often incorrectly called ‘intermittency’) will lead to blackouts. Misconceptions about environment and health impacts of renewable technologies are common. Most barriers, however, are not technical. Fossil fuel subsidies, import tariffs, and vested interests and lobbying by oil and gas companies are major and persistent market barriers. A lack of funding for renewable projects and investment in fossil fuels limit renewable energy uptake. Important regulatory barriers include a lack of ambitious target and insufficient policy attention paid to heating, cooling and transport.

Ultimately, we need to change norms. We are moving from an energy system, and economic system, that is structured around fossil fuels. Engaging in the transition towards renewable energy means changing how we think and reflect on what strategic choices we make, i.e. integrating risks linked to climate change, considering different financial structures of renewable energy projects etc. 

“Considering climate change, there is an urgency to raise the ambition, accelerate the transition and spread knowledge about the opportunities that renewable energy represents.”
Rana Adib at EUSEW 2019 in Brussels - © European Union Rana Adib at EUSEW 2019 in Brussels - © European Union

One could say that the global energy transition is now well underway, with record new additions of installed renewable energy capacity, rapidly falling costs, particularly for solar PV and wind power, etc. Are we really on such a great path?

Renewable energy has been established globally as a mainstream source of electricity generation for several years. The estimated share of renewables in global electricity generation was more than a quarter (26%) by the end of 2018. Today renewables make up more than one-third of global installed power capacity. In addition, net capacity additions for renewable power were higher than for fossil fuels and nuclear combined for the fourth year in a row and in many cases, renewable power is the most economical option. This is all great news.  However, renewable energy uptake in the power sector is still not happening quickly enough and is seriously lacking in the heating, cooling and transport sectors. Despite these sectors accounting for 51% and 32% of total final energy consumption respectively, uptake of renewables has been slow due to insufficient policy action. This is where strong policy support and ambitious targets are needed, for example removing subsidies for fossil fuels so that renewables can compete on a level playing field.

 

Solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind are now mainstream options in the power sector, with an increasing number of countries generating more than 20% of their electricity from solar PV and wind. This is good news. But once again, current trends show that bolder policy decisions are needed across all sectors of energy end-use to make our energy systems sustainable. Could you please talk a little bit about this?

Global renewable power capacity grew to around 2,378 GW in 2018 meaning that this was the fourth year in a row where additions of renewable power generation capacity outpaced net installations of fossil fuel and nuclear power combined. So, by the end of 2018, more than 90 countries had installed at least 1 GW of generating capacity, while at least 30 countries exceeded 10 GW of capacity and as you note, there is also a growing number of countries now have more than 20% variable renewables in their electricity mix. This is encouraging news, but considering the climate emergency, uptake in the power sector is not happening quickly enough. Moreover, renewable energy penetration in the heating, cooling and transport sectors remains persistently low. Policy frameworks are lacking, and targets are not ambitious enough

To support systemic and sustained uptake of renewables across the power, heating, cooling and transport sectors policymakers need to make critical policy changes.  Examples include creating a level playing field by removing fossil fuel subsidies, mandating sector integration among power, heating, cooling and transport, aligning national, sub-national and local policies, linking renewable and energy efficiency.  

“If we take the scientific evidence about climate change seriously, renewable energy must become the conventional fuel of not only tomorrow, but already today. It is not a matter of choosing, we have no choice. And it is possible.”

You have produced reports to look at what motivates cities to use renewables and you have documented the types of policies, technologies and community engagement initiatives that cities are using to implement the renewable energy transition globally. What are the main conclusions of your research and what would you say is the role of cities in the energy transition?

It’s clear that cities are key in driving the energy transition and need to play an active role in the energy debate. They account for 55% of the global population, are responsible for 65% of global energy demand and 75% of global CO2 emissions.

Thankfully, cities are emerging as leaders, often setting more ambitious targets than their national counterparts. In addition, municipal governments, in their role of owner and/or operator of city infrastructures such as utilities, transport networks, district heating and cooling networks can use renewable energy technologies used to power this infrastructure. They can also contribute to the energy transition by purchasing renewable energy for consumption in public buildings, invest public funds in renewable energy and energy efficiency measures and renewable energy champions: sending signals to other stakeholders and putting pressure on national governments to change current practices.

As you mentioned before, there is a lack of ambitious and sustained policies to drive decarbonisation, especially in the heating, cooling and transport sectors, who remain heavily reliant on (subsidies) fossil fuels. Can you talk a little bit more about this?

Yes, energy and climate targets lack the required ambition to decarbonise the energy system. Additionally, we are not on track to achieve the 1.5C target set out in the Paris Agreement on climate. Between the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2016 and the end of 2018, cumulative bank finance for fossil fuels amounted to USD 1.9 trillion. In 2018, global subsidies for fossil fuel consumption increased to levels last seen in 2014, reaching an estimated USD 400 billion, a one-third increase from the year before. An estimation of fossil fuel subsidies made by the International Monetary Fund places the true cost of fossil fuels as upwards of USD 5.2 trillion*. And these subsidies continue to grow. To date, 70 countries have transport regulatory policies and only 20 countries have heating and cooling policies. In contrast, 135 countries have power regulatory policies. 

 

What is the likelihood that there will be 100% renewable energy initiatives by 2050?

If we take the scientific evidence about climate change seriously, renewable energy must become the conventional fuel of not only tomorrow but already today. It is not a matter of choosing, we have no choice. And it is possible. 

Denmark is currently the only country with a 2050 target of 100% renewable energy across all sectors. Many countries, however, are already targeting for 100% renewable electricity earlier than 2050. Examples, such as the Netherlands show that the energy transition can also be driven by C02 targets: the Netherland have committed to reducing their carbon emissions by 49% by 2030 (relative to 1990 levels). Real momentum is seen in at the city-level where many cities are targeting 100% renewable energy across all sectors. Cities such as Berkeley (USA), Vancouver (Canada) and Frankfurt (Germany) are targeting 100% renewable energy by 2050 with some cities aiming to achieve this target even sooner e.g. Malmo (Sweden) by 2030, Fukushima (Japan) by 2040. Real momentum is also seen in the private sector: RE100 companies including IKEA, Aviva, Apple, Diageo, Lego, have committed to decarbonising their operations or have set 100% RE targets; over 1000 organisations have decided to divest from fossil fuels, which represents USD 9.94 trillion. 

Living in a world that is fuelled with 100% renewables is doable! But it is only doable in time if policies and regulatory frameworks set the right market rules. 


* Defined as fuel consumption times the gap between existing and efficient prices, so-called post-tax consumption subsidies reflect the difference between end-user prices and what consumers would pay if the price reflected the estimated costs of negative externalities, such as local air pollution, effects of climate change, traffic congestion, etc.