Clean energy for all Europeans – unlocking Europe’s growth potential by Dolf Gielen

Clean energy for all Europeans – unlocking Europe’s growth potential by Dolf Gielen

The first energy transition from wind and horse-power to coal happened 250 years ago, and a transition to natural gas was 50 years ago. It’s now time for another energy transition that’s not opportunity-driven, but needs-driven by climate change, said Dolf Gielen, Director IRENA Innovation and Technology Centre (IITC), International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Internationally, the drivers vary.

Gielen says in Europe it’s about climate change and rapidly growing energy demand, but is also seen as a way to create economic opportunities. It first requires an enabling policy framework that includes energy efficiency and energy coalitions between governments ‒ between China and Germany for example ‒ although cities also play an important role. The USA has more commitment for this at state level than federal level.

Europe can’t do it on its own

The proportion of renewable energy sources is growing faster in Europe than globally, so Europe will reach the global average before 2020 and will continue to grow faster than the rest of the world. But Gielen warned that Europe can’t do it on its own. “It must be a global energy transition, so we must get others on board.” Innovation plays an important role and has already resulted in spectacular cost reductions from offshore wind, electric vehicles (EVs) and solar power ‒ which have also resulted in changes to markets and new business models. “The combination of ICT and energy transition is interesting with many developments,” he said. But energy transition won’t happen overnight, and fossil fuels will continue to play an important role. The prevalent focus on transitioning from coal to natural gas is not enough to get a virtually decarbonised energy sector by 2050. Hydrogen as a zero-emission fuel was in the news 10 years ago, but nothing more was heard of it until recently. “Now I’m getting questions about it again. Something has changed and it would be interesting to get views on how hydrogen plays a role in this transition.”

A need for clear signals

But there are many aspects of the energy transition that need clearer and more credible signals. He stressed the importance of a CO2 price higher than five euros per tonne. Freight, aviation and shipping have not made such significant progress – they operate internationally so are subject to policies and international competitiveness. This is where a global sectoral approach and global processes are needed. The downward trend in costs for photo voltaic (solar panels) makes it increasingly competitive, and reflects the increasing deployment of renewable sources of energy. An ‘uptick of progress’ can be seen in heat pumps, EVs, home storage batteries. “Plus, ICT and the energy sector are getting much closer – we’ll see a lot of talk about these today,” he commented. The conclusion of talks with the International Energy Agency was that the energy transition is technically and economically feasible, “but you really need an energy transition and you need to speed it up. In our view, improving efficiency and using renewables are the bulk of the effort and the power sector needs to play a key role. And if you do it right, then renewables can become the dominant source of energy supply over the next half century or so, but it won’t happen by itself.” So what about the role of consumers? According to Gielen, Germany has 1.7 million electricity producers; they include solar panels on roofs of dwellings. And he said the number of corporates sourcing renewable energy is growing.

An audience member asked about nuclear energy options. Gielen answered that nuclear is a carbon-free energy source so in that sense it contributes and fits, but there’s an issue with the economics because China and Russia are the main suppliers, but other nations are withdrawing from nuclear power. “Japan has a real problem with accepting the starting up existing plants. “Nuclear power will probably contribute, but I’m not expecting a nuclear renaissance on a global scale.”