Our Energy Future

Summertime affords the opportunity to sit back a bit and mull. With people on holiday the phone is quiet, the deluge of email has slowed to a trickle and there is time to allow the mind to wander: to reflect on bigger issues and contemplate interconnections. The post-2015 development agenda is one that has popped into my mind.

The post-2015 agenda creates the opportunity for energy access to be front and center with regards to development, which was not the case when its predecessor (the Millennium Development Goals) was created. So, what energy future do we want beyond 2015? Are we well-positioned to have clean, renewable energy systems that provide the needed energy services? I believe the answer is “yes”.

In 2011, renewables provided 19% of the global final energy consumption and generated 20.3% of all electricity. By the end of 2012, 21.7% of global electricity production was generated from renewables. This trend is expected to increase. Moreover, as the evolution of electricity provision to-date attests, the integration of renewables is not a pipe-dream but a reality.

For many years, it was believed that renewable energy technologies (other than large hydro) could only supplement the established electricity system, and that there was an inherent limit on the share of variable renewable sources that it could accommodate. Experience in Denmark, Germany, Spain, and elsewhere, however, has demonstrated that the implementation of suitable policies can enable the successful integration of higher shares of variable renewables than was thought possible only a few years ago, while also providing unforeseen benefits. Most of the alleged constraints to achieving higher shares of renewables either have resulted from a lack of political will to enact the required enabling legislation and actions, or they have been disproven as technical solutions to overcome the various challenges have emerged. Hence, variable renewables are becoming a major part (meaning around 15–20% or more) of the electricity supply in an increasing number of countries.

It is now evident that a mix of variable and dispatchable renewables can provide a stable and reliable electricity supply. As installed capacities of renewables increase, a portfolio of different renewable technologies can often cover the major part of the power demand and, where inter-connected to other grids, can provide a surplus to export. They can provide electricity around the clock and throughout the year at reasonable costs, if the grid system and the regulatory framework are flexible and operated smartly.

Further, it has been shown that renewables can reduce electricity prices considerably and thus alleviate energy costs for consumers. Rising shares of variable renewable energy sources have triggered discussions about potential risks for system stability, the need for back-up capacities, and limitations of existing market designs that may no longer be able to provide adequate signals for needed future investment in power plants and infrastructure.

These discussions began in countries and regions where wind power shares of the total electricity mix exceeded 15% (e.g., Denmark, northern Germany, northern Spain, South Australia). The debate is expanding to other regions and technologies with, for example, high shares of solar PV emerging in Spain, Italy, and increasingly throughout Germany. Although the present debate focuses on these OECD countries, it will soon become relevant for other countries (including major emerging economies) as their shares of wind and solar electricity generation increase.

So, yes, we have the capacity right now provide necessary energy services with clean, renewable energy. The more important question is, “How do we put the policies and partnerships in place to guarantee a transformation towards sustainable energy?”

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