A rising star
Landslides unleashed by cloudbursts engulf entire villages in China and Sri Lanka. East Africa’s dwindling water resources fuel conflicts and famine. Torrential rain in Berlin incapacitates the city for days on end, while Greece and India bake under extreme heat. These news bulletins from the same week provide gloomy confirmation of something we repeatedly push to the back of our minds: everywhere around the globe, the forecasts issued by climate researchers are becoming reality. Nonetheless, a great many politicians still talk about global warming in the future tense. And US President Donald Trump remains steadfastly intent on achieving global ‘energy dominance’ by reviving coal, gas and oil extraction, while talking cryptically about the Paris treaty.
How then should the climate paradox, this greatest challenge mankind has ever faced, be resolved? In a nutshell, how can we drastically reduce CO2 emissions while concomitantly satisfying a constant increase in demand? The people of Ghana and Haiti also want to use refrigerators, eat well and surf the internet. But more than a billion people around the world do not have access to electricity.
It would be easy to throw in the towel, after all quite a few countries are repeatedly postponing their climate obligations. Environmental organisations bemoan the fact that, between 2013 and 2015, the G20’s economically most powerful states continued to plough some USD 71.8 billion into subsidising fossil-based energies. Governments are faltering in their efforts to re-engineer heating, cooling and transport systems along with our fossil fuel-powered agricultural industry. Even Germany, ostensibly a paragon of green virtue, is falling short of its climate change mitigation objectives.
This is a far cry from the ‘high speed action’ the climate experts recently called for in Nature magazine. Discussions focus only on what is possible, criticises the environmental pioneer and former SPD member of the German Bundestag, Michael Müller – but not on what is needed.
Sometimes, though, those things that need doing do get done, even if only a short while beforehand this may have seemed impossible. Photovoltaic, solar and geothermal systems and wind power are gaining unexpected momentum around the globe. Over the past 10 years, global investments in solar capacity have increased tenfold and the upward curve is becoming increasingly steep. Electric power is not the whole story – but as more surplus wind or solar power is used for driving and heating, the more important it will become. However, even in the face of this positive development, there are still many questions that need answering – like can it win the climate and energy-driven race against time? And if the rate of expansion increases further, can we be sure that wind and solar farms will be set up not only on the basis of economic factors but intelligently, fairly and in a people-centred manner, so that they do not bulldoze other social and ecological needs?
With a 9 per cent increase over the previous year, 2016 was another record year of expansion for renewable energy. New photovoltaic systems are responsible for 47 per cent of this output, wind turbines for 34 per cent and hydropower plants for 15.5 per cent. The biggest investors here are China and the USA. But many other countries benefit from their natural environments too, like Scandinavia, which is rich in wood, biomass and windy coastlines. Thanks to its abundant water resources, Costa Rica already produces 90 per cent of its electric power from renewable sources and the Philippines harness their volcanic energy for geothermal purposes. But political will is also increasing – especially in several developing countries. According to the global policy network REN21, Bolivia is the latest champion in terms of the percentage share of gross national product it invests in renewable energy capacity, closely followed by Senegal, Jordan and Honduras.
Doing away with coal is integral to the fight against climate change. For industrialised countries to re-engineer energy systems that have become entrenched over the years, they need to overcome the blockades put in place by powerful lobby groups. Meanwhile developing countries and emerging economies have to make sure that this kind of ‘path dependency’ is not allowed to take hold in the first place. One piece of good news is that China is planning 100 fewer coal-fired power plants and relying instead on solar energy. The government in Delhi has also increased its aspirations with regard to sun and wind power and aims to use this to cover 57 per cent of its energy demands by 2027.
All this seems to be happening of its own accord. Indeed, the continuing low prices for oil, gas and coal are actually a hindrance to investments in a different kind of energy future. Emissions trading is having barely any effect at all and demands for drastic CO2 taxes have so far fallen on deaf ears. So why is renewable energy succeeding anyway? There are many reasons – one is the rising level of environmental pollution in emerging economies. Coal-fired power plants emit not only CO2, but also particulate matter and sulphur dioxide, which combine with exhaust gases. If you have ever sat with an open window in the chronic traffic congestion in cities like Beijing, Manila or Dhaka and needed two hours to cover two kilometres, then you know that this air makes people ill – and some have turned rebellious. There have been protests in many places.
„But to truly transform our economy, to protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy.“
Barack Obama, former US President
Perhaps the most important driving force is the increasingly affordable price of renewables-based systems. Germany truly belonged to the avant-garde here. Thanks to its pioneering Renewable Energies Act, it showed the world that sun and wind can make a significant contribution to power generation in an industrialised country, too. This created a market that primarily attracted Chinese manufacturers, leading to mass production and economies of scale that have seen the prices of solar modules drop by 20 per cent with every doubling of capacity. In many places in the world, photovoltaic systems can compete with conventional electricity-producing plants. In rural regions in the South especially, solar solutions are more cost-effective than diesel, kerosene or batteries.
A boost from international agreements
Global contracts are another factor driving this upturn. In 2015, almost all of the world’s governments committed to the Paris Climate Agreement and thus to keeping global warming below the two-degree threshold. Indeed, as far as possible, they even wanted to limit increases to 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial age.
Also in 2015, the United Nations (UN) adopted the 2030 Agenda with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They replaced the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which had failed to consider the central role that energy also plays in the fight against poverty. This was reckless – because without electricity there is no light for studying, no place to keep food or medicines cool, no cashew nut roasting machines and no jobs. This explains SDG 7, which aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030. Corresponding groundwork is already being laid, with many states having now produced at least a rough estimate of regional potential. And the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) is on hand to provide technical expertise to the governments of poorer countries in particular.
Furthermore, a growing number of well-endowed investors are showing an interest in renewable energy. ‘Coal is dead,’ said Jim Barry, global head of the world’s leading asset management company Blackrock in an interview in Australia of all places, the staunchest advocate among coal-producing nations. ‘But anyone who’s looking to take beyond a 10-year view on coal is gambling very significantly – and the smart money knows it’. For decades, Blackrock itself earned off the back of fossil fuels. But now major investors are backing a green future and expect to see innovations and secure returns from climate change mitigation. However, as the number of hydro, wind and solar power plants as well as biomass and geothermal systems goes up, the clearer the pitfalls and challenges become.
Money: The technologies are mature, but there is still a lot to learn, especially when power generation is to be linked with heating, cooling and transport systems. Here the experts’ thinking is still too unimaginative and not joined-up enough. Private operators, especially citizens’ cooperatives and medium-sized businesses, but also research institutions, need an incentive to network. In poor countries in particular, it will be a long time before this is possible without subsidies. From the Global Climate Partnership Fund to national development resources and the World Bank, billions are available for renewable energy. But it is still not enough and not sufficiently target-oriented.
Laws: The key to a faster rollout is a political framework that provides an answer to the question: how do we get from ‘best practice models’ to their broad-scale rollout? Some 60 governments have already agreed on support measures, some of them based on Germany’s Renewable Energies Act. However, its central ideas are not always transferable to poorer countries. For example, the feed-in tariff for private producers requires citizens with the money for such investments. And the recovery of initial investment costs via electricity pricing only works if enough customers can afford to pay – two things that, alongside transport services and networks, are not on hand in many developing countries. That’s why Morocco, for example, is relying directly on state participation in large-scale projects such as the Noor solar plant. More and more governments are providing subsidies to private individuals and municipalities wishing to invest in solar installations.
„Morocco is an energy-impoverished country, at least in the conventional sense. But it is in the process of turning this disadvantage into an advantage by relying consistently on renewable energy.“
Aziz Rabbah, Moroccan Minister of Energy
The enormous advantages of decentralised supply, especially in rural regions, are only gradually coming to the fore. In South America, Asia and Africa, more and more people are using favourably priced solar home systems with sufficient energy to light a lamp or heat a hotplate. Solar kiosks in villages offer farmers and craftspeople a solution for recharging their batteries or mobile phones.
Mini power grids are also getting energy to places that would be too expensive to serve through connections to the main power grid. E.ON employee Daniel Becker, for example, is using his start-up Rafiki Power – which translates directly as ‘friendly’ power – to build up a ‘mini off-grid’ market in remote parts of Tanzania. Small power plants fitted with rooftop solar panels are steadily supplying an increasing number of homes with ‘friendly power’. This enables locals to use televisions, freezers and refrigerators or other electrical appliances. A smart metre measures power consumption and informs the customer via SMS as soon as they need to top-up their account. In the meantime, eight plants are now supplying 10 villages and more than 900 households with clean energy. However, Daniel Becker is keen to stress that, ‘Electric power alone does not lead to development.’ That is why he is leveraging development funding in an attempt to build up the sales and rental market for useful appliances, from electrical woodworking planes to threshing machines.
Energy supply is becoming more people-centred
With kick-start funding from the government, mini-networks could also be operated on a cooperative basis and so foster economic activities. Providing electricity for the production of sweet potato chips, oil products or manioc flour makes value chains grow. Energy supply becomes productive and people-centred and in some places it can even form the core of ‘polycentric urbanisation’. This is the term the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) uses to describe efforts to relieve the burden on capacity-strained megacities, essentially through the innovative and infrastructure-based – economic – revival of small cities. This decentralised approach is probably the fastest route developing countries can take to leapfrog the fossil age. For industrialised and developing nations alike, everything hinges on municipalities and regions becoming key actors in the switch to decentralised power generation systems.
Fairness: In spite of all these opportunities, energy policy efforts have often tended to concentrate on urban centres. In the megacities of Africa and Asia, massive shopping centres are nurturing the consumerist dreams of a growing middle class while companies are settling in their industrial belts. Voters in these cities can be particularly vocal about their annoyance at yet another prolonged power cut. As a result, the day-to-day problems of the poor, even when these have nothing to do with power supply, are all too easily pushed into the background. Take cooking for example: some 2.7 billion people still cook their meals using wood, charcoal, manure or plant residues – in sub-Saharan Africa as many as 90 per cent of people do. But the smoke in the huts affects their lungs, women need hours to collect twigs and branches, and forests are being destroyed.
Replacing wood-burning stoves with solar or biogas ones is a complex task. Initiatives frequently come to nothing because spare parts are missing or because bread simply does not taste as good without the smoke aroma. This kind of cultural readjustment procedure takes time – consequently, it makes sense to make more efficient use of the wood that is being burned anyway. Tanzanian charcoal burners, for example, are learning how to farm trees sustainably, to seal their kilns more effectively and to construct them in a way that allows the air to circulate freely, enabling charcoal to be burned with fewer CO2 emissions. The charcoal users in the village build their own clay cook stoves, thus doubling the level of efficiency. This is the kind of project that needs more support in future.
Limits: In spite of the need to move things along quickly, climate change mitigation must not come at the cost of other legitimate resource requirements. In the case of biomass, this was a hard-learned lesson. Fuel admixtures or the promotion of large-scale biogas plants in Europe are responsible for an abrupt hike in demand for maize, rapeseed, palm oil and sugar beet. And with it the demand for agricultural land – resulting worldwide in monocultures and the demise of small-scale farming. Sun, water and wind are not automatically sustainable either. Large-scale plants, like the kind favoured by powerful investors, need land and compete with other types of usage. In India and Mexico, villagers have already taken a stand against wind turbines that investors wanted to put on their farmland.
Time and again, residents are forced out when large-scale dams are erected. Planners fail to recognise that shepherds or indigenous peoples use purported wasteland. Conservationists campaign for key biotopes in a bid to protect species diversity. Then again, there is political tension, like in Morocco where part of a large-scale solar project that has attracted international acclaim is located in an area of the Western Sahara earmarked by the government in Rabat –evidently without including local people in the planning process.
„Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.“
Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund
Such conflicts of interest show that, although renewables are essentially limitless, they are ultimately not ‘infinitely accessible’ after all. This makes it all the more important to save and use energy efficiently. Here too, developing countries could ‘leapfrog’ old practices. India was quick to bring out a corresponding law. Stringent controls have been in place for more than 10 years for energy-intensive industries, homes and for every single electric appliance.
Frugality: For climate change mitigation to be implemented in a socially equitable manner and for poorer countries to be able to develop their full potential, we need to radically lower energy consumption and emissions, especially in industrialised nations. This is a conundrum for politicians: people find smart new technologies much more appealing than demands to reduce their energy consumption. In places where pro-capita consumption levels are 10 to 20 times the emissions levels of, say, a person in India or Zambia, we have to look for new ways forward and a new way of living our lives. For this reason, successes in the use of renewables should not be taken as an excuse to put off the more frugal use of energy.
published in akzente 3/17
Providing people with energy is help for self-help
In two thirds of the 120 countries in which it operates, GIZ is involved in activities to promote clean energy. Some 900 staff are employed in 160 energy projects with a cumulative commission volume of around EUR 600 million. GIZ is pursuing two key objectives with its work. We wish to supply people with energy, so they can irrigate their fields, cool drinks, use medical appliances or read after dark. And we want to help protect the climate and the environment. For this reason, we are assisting developing countries and emerging economies in meeting their growing energy demands from renewable sources.
The major part of our activities is dedicated to expanding grid-bound renewable energy. This means putting in place enabling conditions for the construction of wind and solar farms. GIZ therefore advises many governments on the rollout out of the requisite soft and hard infrastructure, such as feed-in tariffs for ‘clean’ electricity. GIZ expertise is integral, for example, to India’s Energy Conservation Act. Furthermore, we also promote efficient energy use by insulating buildings or by introducing energy efficiency standards.
Moreover, we are developing business models to bring electricity to places that are still off grid. One such approach is based on stand-alone systems. These are small photovoltaic plants that, depending on their size, generate power for lighting or for operating appliances such as televisions or fridge-freezers. In the second half of 2016 alone, more than 3.7 million of these systems were introduced. This is important, because around the world more than one billion people are without electricity.
GIZ is implementing a wide-reaching programme in 25 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Here many people cook and heat on an open fire, resulting in respiratory illnesses, burns, the depletion of valuable forests and high CO2 emissions. GIZ empowers local actors to develop, manufacture and sell more efficient closed clay stoves, for example, which use less wood and are safer to operate.
The same programme also creates access to electricity from renewable sources. Launched in 2005 with money from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the Netherlands, it set out to provide more than three million people with eco-friendly energy by 2009. Owing to its great success, it has been extended several times. By 2019, some 19 million people will have access to electricity or better cooking energy. In the meantime, the governments of Great Britain, Switzerland, Sweden and Norway also support this programme.
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