Unequal Progress in the Renewable Energy Transition

Solar powered electric buses in the United Kingdom / The Ecologist

Around the world, adoption of renewable energy is expanding rapidly, but progress within the energy field has been one-sided. The electricity sector has made much more progress than the building and transportation sectors in changing over to renewable energy, despite significant demand.

During an event for the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, Rana Adib, executive secretary of Ren21, an international non-profit association based in Paris, said the discrepancy comes down to an issue of ambition.

Many countries have power generation targets, but far fewer have set goals for increasing renewable energy in buildings and transportation systems. What’s more, targets set in the power sector have been more aggressive, with many countries aiming for 100 percent renewable power in their electricity systems.

Comparatively, goals set for buildings and transport have been more modest and less imaginative. Slow progress in these sectors is compounded by the significance of their energy footprint. Together, buildings and transport account for 80 percent of global energy demand.

2017 was an extraordinary year for renewable energy in the power sector. Total installed renewable energy capacity increased 9 percent over 2016 — the largest annual increase to date — and supplied over 26 percent of global electricity.

“It’s a no brainer to invest in renewable power,” she said, adding that investments in new renewable energy capacity were about three times that of new fossil fuels and have been driven by advances in solar photovoltaic (pv) and wind, which have far outpaced projected growth due to advances in policy, cost competiveness, storage technology, and grid integration.

According to REN21’s 2018 Global Status Report solar pv installed capacity “…nearly double those of wind power (in second place) — adding more net capacity than coal, natural gas and nuclear power combined.”

But where the power sector is making exponential gains, renewable energy progress in transportation and buildings lag far behind.

Electrifying transportation systems is the first step, then these systems can use renewable power. Last year, renewable energy accounted for only 3 percent of the energy share in transport, which currently relies largely on liquid biofuels, accounting for 90 percent of current energy. But electrification has gained traction through electric rail, shipping, and aviation systems and the expansion of electric vehicle sales.

Just over 10 percent of heating systems in buildings use renewable energy, and progress remains slow for renewables in cooling despite growing demand in the sector.

To achieve a total renewable energy transition, Adib said we need a systems approach that brings together all of the sectors.

Adib’s remarks kicked off a panel discussion on how to turn aspirations into reality. Speakers underscored the need to better collaborate and invite new voices to join the dialogue.

“The main thing is proper collaboration between the different layers in which we operate in,” said Lasse Bruun, the global head of energy transition at Climate Action Network (CAN). He said that people working to advance renewable energy need to work with non-profit organizations, cities, businesses, and community members.

He added: “it’s also because people still do not make the link between renewable energy and what happens in their own lives.”

Antonio Mozqueira, senior manager of climate change policy with the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government, reiterated the importance of building awareness of the value of renewable energy in communities.

The ACT government aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020 and a 100 percent renewable energy target by 2020 — the most ambitious targets set in Australia. Engaging people is essential to achieving these targets. To successfully change a community’s behavior, advocates for renewable systems have to present more desirable alternatives.

“If you have a public bus system that everyone hates you really have to address that. You have to look at how to make it more convenient and efficient.”

“How do you incentivize people so they’ll think about leaving the car at home or not buying that second car and take public transport? And if people are really so attached to their cars, how can we actually move them to the path of buying more efficient, fuel-efficient cars?”

Jens Neilsen, founder and CEO of World Climate LTD, said the solution won’t be found in just one part of the renewable energy arena. In addition to policy, he noted the need for cheaper storage.

And from an investment standpoint, subsidies in fossil fuels continue to outpace those for renewable energy. “To achieve the energy transition, you need a whole systems change.”

As we think critically about how to increase renewable energy use, we need to define the future we seek to create.

“Advancing environmental and social well-being is integrated with this energy transformation,” said Paulette Middleton, secretary of the board of directors of the International Solar Energy Society. “We have already gone over the tipping point.”

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