The decade of energy transformation lies ahead of us

15 JAN 2020

As we enter a new decade, IRENA Director-General Francesco La Camera suggests the 2020s will be the golden age of renewables 

The 2010s will be remembered as the decade when renewable energy went from the marginal to the mainstream. Cost reductions and the growing climate crisis have propelled renewable energy sources into the social and political discourse in almost every country on earth. Of all the major power generation technologies – traditional or renewable – solar accounts for the largest share of additional capacity over the last 10 years. 

Encouraging as this progress might be, the hard work is ahead of us. Our actions in the 2020s will define the long-term future of our economies, our people and our planet. Any chance we have of mitigating the climate crisis and achieiving sustainable development by mid-century, lies in the policies, investments and emission reductions made this decade. And this critical period of action begins in Abu Dhabi at the 10th IRENA Assembly during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week. 

The 2020s are set to be the decade that redefines our socioeconomic system. If successful, we will have unleashed 10 breathtaking years of energy system transformation putting us well on the way to generating nearly nine tenths of electricity from renewables by 2050. The hard work starts now to ensure that by the end of this decade renewables contribute half of all power generation globally. 

It could also be the decade in which demand for both coal and oil peaks, where we see 157 million electric vehicles on our roads, and when the last person on earth without reliable and affordable access to electricity is enjoying the benefits of its productive uses. It’s possible. To ensure this happens, however, we must urgently address two key things. Investment and policy. 

Planned energy investments are currently misdirected and should pivot to low-carbon technologies. By our calculations more than USD 18 trillion of energy investments by 2050 are fossil fuel related, including exploration and production of gas, oil and coal. At best, these investments risk stranding trillions of dollars of assets in uneconomical fuels in just a few years. At worst, they threaten to blow the world’s carbon budget this decade, and with it any hope of a climate safe future. 

To hold rising temperatures in the 10 years ahead of us, annual investments in renewable energy must rise from today’s USD 330 billion to nearly USD 750 billion per year. Redirecting capital into more socially and economically beneficial low-carbon technologies, is imperative and must start now. It is also the most economic climate action pathway. Inaction will cost up to 7 times more than the capital needed to transform the energy system.

The Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) countries are taking up the renewable energy race and have everything to gain from moving quickly into a leadership position on future energy. Conservative estimates suggest that by 2030 the region could save more than 350 million barrels of oil equivalent and create close to a quarter of a million new jobs by executing current plans. Solar and wind resources are rich and attractive, and policies have made it cheaper to generate power from renewables than from any other source. Moving from oil, gas pipelines and coal shipments to solar panels and wind turbines strengthens energy security, supports energy independence and builds prosperity for all, not just for the few. 

There is no question we are moving in the right direction. In the last decade renewable power generation capacity has doubled and its growth has consistently outpaced fossil fuels since 2012. A third of global power generation capacity today is renewable. This is the result of investments of around USD 3 trillion over the last 10 years including large hydro. In the decade of transformation ahead of us however, the next three trillion dollars of renewable investments should take around four years. 

Policies must align with the opportunity and reflect the necessity. Under current policies, the peak production of fossil fuels happens somewhere between 2030 and 2035, dramatically out of step with the Paris Agreement which requires a peak in 2020 and a steady, continuous decline from that point. Furthermore, renewable energy targets in nationally determined contributions (NDCs) lag market progress. By 2030 NDCs should target double the amount of renewable capacity, they do today.  

It is no longer a question of direction, but of speed. With policy support, smart investment decision-making and clear recognition of the benefits associated with a renewables-based energy system, the speed of transformation ahead of us could rival the that of any in the post-industrial age. Anything short of this, risks everything.   


26 MAR 2020

District cooling has a major role to play in a an energy efficient future

As water scarcity and the climate crisis worsen, solar energy will become the ultimate solution to sustainability. The Middle East should play a leading role as a solar energy superpower. 
In the past few years, we unwillingly witnessed previously unfathomable water rationing in Cape Town, South Africa, Sydney, Australia, and Chennai, India. The term “day-zero”, which was first used in Cape Town, indicates how easily human society can be pushed into a primitive living state when the water supply is not secure. 

While rapid population growth and steadily improving living standards, among others, continue to put enormous pressure on already very stressed water systems, climate change is increasing air temperatures along with the frequency and intensity of extreme droughts, which together lead to increased water use for crop irrigation and livestock. Predictions indicate that more than 60 percent of the world’s population could experience severe water scarcity by 2040. Ensuring water security is a daunting challenge and, in many countries, tantamount to national security. 

Desalination of seawater, an energy-intensive process, provides water to many parts of the globe. The Middle East, with limited freshwater sources, is heavily dependent on desalination. It accounts for 45 percent of the world’s total seawater desalination capacity. Consequently, water and energy are closely intertwined in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, around 10 percent of the electricity is used for seawater desalination. In Abu Dhabi, the desalination sector contributes more than 22 percent of the emirate’s total CO2 emissions. Climate change is already leading to environmental changes in our seas and oceans. Phytoplankton productivity may be a casualty of climate change, which may increase the energy intensity of seawater desalination processes. 

Water, energy and the climate are inextricably interconnected in the Middle East and beyond. Solar energy must sit at the center of this nexus for the following four reasons.

First, solar energy is clean with a minimal carbon footprint. Studies have projected life-cycle emissions from solar power to be 4–12 gCO2eq/kWh (note: grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour electricity generated), compared with 80–110 and 400–1000 gCO2eq/kWh of fossil fuel burning plants with and without carbon capture and sequestration, respectively.1 

More often than not, the complaint against solar energy is for its low areal energy intensity, which necessitates the use of large land areas in any form of its utilisation. However, Japan is third in the world in total photovoltaics (PV) installation capacity and Singapore is on its way to producing 4 percent of its total electricity from solar energy by 2030. These two land-scarce countries should inspire the rest of the world. Our will and determination can always overcome physical land constraints.

Second, solar energy is abundantly available in most parts of the world where there are human activities. The often-quoted statement that the solar energy that the Earth receives in one single hour is enough to power the entire world for one year communicates the vast abundance of solar energy available for energy production and its unmatched potential.

Third, solar power has a very low barrier-of-entry, which is especially true with PV. The cost of PV has been drastically reduced. Depending on available capital, PV can be used at any scale, from household panels to massive industrial-scale solar farms. Nowadays, regular households can afford small-scale PV systems even without governmental subsidies. Affordability leads to a virtuous cycle in PV development. A very recent study reports that the cost of solar power is lower than local grid power in 344 cities in China, even without subsidies. And in 76 of those cities, the price of solar power was equal to or less than that of coal-fired power.2 

Fourth, solar power generation consumes minimal amounts of water. To generate 1 MWh of electricity, PV consumes only 2 gallons of water whereas thermal power plants using coal and nuclear fuel as energy sources consume 692 and 572 gallons of water, respectively.3  Technologies now being developed can even turn conventional PV farms into net freshwater production facilities while also producing electricity.4  

The Middle East is blessed with stable and reliable solar irradiation; arguably, it is the best quality solar irradiation in the world. In addition, there are vast areas of land in the Middle East that remain undeveloped and unused. The annual average solar irradiance in Saudi Arabia (2300 kWh/m2) is more than 1.4 times that in Japan (1600 kWh/m2). By a simple calculation, if 5  percent of the land area in Saudi Arabia were covered with state-of-the-art PV panels, more electricity than needed by the entire world could be produced. However, solar energy has been considerably underutilised in the Middle East. At status quo, solar electricity in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates accounts for less than 0.1 percent and 1 percent of the total domestic electricity generation, respectively.

Fortunately, giant solar projects in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates currently being planned demonstrate the region’s ambitions to rightfully lead the world in solar power generation. 
As the world is moving into a decarbonised and circular economy, solar energy must sit at the center of the water-energy-climate nexus. 

1. Pehl, M.;  Arvesen, A.;  Humpenöder, F.;  Popp, A.;  Hertwich, E. G.; Luderer, G., Understanding future emissions from low-carbon power systems by integration of life-cycle assessment and integrated energy modelling. Nature Energy 2017, 2 (12), 939.
2. China brings solar home. Nature Energy 2019, 4 (8), 623-623.
3. Wilson, W.;  Leipzig, T.; Griffiths-Sattenspiel, B., Burning our rivers: The water footprint of electricity. River Network (Austin, TX: Comptroller of Public Accounts, Data Division Services) Publication 2012,  (96-1704), 62.
4. Wang, W.;  Shi, Y.;  Zhang, C.;  Hong, S.;  Shi, L.;  Chang, J.;  Li, R.;  Jin, Y.;  Ong, C.; Zhuo, S., Simultaneous production of fresh water and electricity via multistage solar photovoltaic membrane distillation. Nature communications 2019, 10 (1), 1-9.

By Professor Peng Wang / King Abdullah University of Science and Technology The Hong Kong Polytechnic University


25 FEB 2020

Making sense of it all

The promise of smart cities of the future is enormous – congestion, pollution, overcrowded transit, wasted energy, delayed emergency response all problems of the past. With smart cities, and I shall use this term as moniker that sums up the digitisation of analog processes, big data, the internet of things, automation, machine learning, neural nets, artificial intelligence – almost anything seems to be within the realm of possibility. 

Smart city decision makers will have access to oodles of data to base their decisions on, and better yet decision making will be made even easier as all options will be presented having been thoroughly analysed by sophisticated systems.

But do we know if these sophisticated systems are really giving us the best option?  I am astonished by the inability to often understand how AI come up with their recommendations or actions at times. When AlphaGo beat Lee Sodol, the machine developed a strategy that baffled the world of Go, a game that humans played for over two millennia. We can analyse and try to understand but how it arrived at it its conclusion is not clear. Recently, in one of our on-going research projects, I asked the creators of the AI how it learned to read a satellite images and create mapping at scale? The response was “we don’t really know happens inside”. What we do know is that the AI is able to take our training material and create data at a scale, accuracy and speed that is unrivalled by humans.

AIs are very good at taking rules and playing by them. Clearly defined problems, that can be packed into an algorithm, will yield results at greater speed and higher levels of accuracy than can be produced by humans. Most importantly this releases us from trivial and mundane tasks to turn our hands to something potentially more interesting and meaningful.

Herein however lies the machine’s (current) biggest weakness when we think of the promise of smart cities. Cities are inherently messy, with the rules changing all the time. Messy as they all differ from one another in climate, politics, economics, social norms, size and so on. Messy as they are constantly changing and evolving, over the span of a day, a week, a decade, often in patterns we can only hope to recognise in hindsight. And most importantly, messy as they are made up hundreds of thousands, if not millions of humans, and all with their own individual quirks, personalities, moods and irrationalities. 

When it now comes to making decisions over what is the best trajectory any one city should follow, we must recognise that we cannot possibly feed a machine all possible eventualities that will allow it to make the right choice.

For example, we often discuss the value of green spaces and vegetation in the cities of the Gulf. On one hand there is no way that it can be sustainable to grow grass and trees in the desert based on the amount of resources required to ensure their survival in the harsh climatic conditions. On the other hand, how do we measure the joys of people using these spaces with their friends and families? Whilst we know of the benefits of biophilia, how do we place a value on it? I use a rule of thumb, asking myself if I would let one of my children run around without supervision on a piece of grass, then the effort expanded is ok. Consequently, on a landscaped highway junction, it is not.

We humans have 6,000 years of experience in making cities, and we must build on this. Modern city making professions have their origins in mass urbanisation that the north-Atlantic world experienced during the first industrial revolution and the resulting squalor of cities in the 19th century. Modern architecture, public health professions etc. all stem from a desire to improve the cities for its residents. The last 100 or so years we have sought salvation in designing cities for the car now turning to another technology to help us resolve the problems this caused.

In the cities of the 21st century however, what are the issues that we truly must resolve? Sustainability, inclusivity and well-being are at the top of my list. We humans must remain aware of the pitfalls that technological innovation can harbour amongst all its benefits. For all its benefits, social media has also contributed to isolation and reduced the need for human interaction. Other smart city technology, whilst deployed with the best intention, might have unintended negative consequences. 

I believe that for smart cities of the future to meet their promise, a collaboration between all the technological possibilities and a human effort in making sense of it all, will be fundamental.

By Hrvoje Cindric / Associate, Planning, ARUP


25 FEB 2020

Need to know - World Pulses Day

Held on February 10, World Pulses Day aims to raise awareness of the nutritional and environmental benefits of pulses in sustainable food production. The UN says pulses are an important crop for farmers because they can both sell and consume them, helping to maintain household food security and create economic stability

 World day Pulses Info-graphic