The Irena Renewables and Islands Summit opens in Malta today. Which countries are participating?

Fifty-five states are registered and include 26 Small Island Developing States, two developed islands, seven developed continental countries with islands and 20 other developed and developing countries.

What are the main agenda items, what do you visualise as the key outputs of the conference, and subsequent related activities over the next two or three years?

The Summit will cover a range of topics, including the policy perspectives on island-specific socio-economic challenges, concrete case studies on the deployment of renewables in islands and widely applicable strategies for future development based on renewable energy resources. The transformation of the energy sector on several islands already provides us with inspiring examples that others could follow. However, considering the abundant potential that many islands possess, much more can be done. Pooling the wealth of knowledge and experience among island states and societies is vital to realising their renewable energy potential. Our Summit in Malta will provide an opportunity for such an exchange.

Islands are still perceived as niche markets, but they are not. Collectively, they have huge potential to become the starting point for a transition to renewable energy, by demonstrating how their energy demand can be satisfied mainly or entirely from indigenous and renewable sources.

While each island has its own distinct conditions and circumstances, islands also share a number of common needs and problems. Most islands around the world today are dependent on imported fossil fuels for the majority of their energy needs, especially for transport and electricity generation. For reasons of scale and isolation, their energy infrastructure costs are higher and the impact of oil price and supply volatility is severe, exacerbated by the small size of local markets. Yet these vulnerabilities only accentuate similar energy challenges faced by many mainland countries. The feedback we received when we first considered holding this Summit underscored the need for discussions to be held focusing on achieving energy sustainability and security for islands. Therefore, we believe that the discussions during this Summit will help to guide Irena’s work on islands for several years to come.

Since its inception, Irena (headquartered in Abu Dhabi) has worked actively with islands, especially with Small Island developing states, mostly in the Pacific. For example, our participation in the development of the Tonga Energy Roadmap (Term) began in 2010. At present, we are assisting Grenada to complete a Renewables Readiness Assessment, the outcomes of which will help the government to create a framework capable of accelerating the uptake of renewable energy.

What are Irena’s activities in the Mediterranean region to date, and how could these develop (both in its islands and other territories)? Does Irena have/intend to develop co-operative working relationships with the Union for the Mediterranean secretariat, the European Investment Bank, the recent EU initiative to develop sustainable energy access in developing countries, the Regional Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency – RCREEE, Egypt)?

Mediterranean countries possess an abundance of renewable energy resources, making engagement with the region critical for Irena: we are already collaborating with many countries and organisations working within the Mediterranean region. Earlier this year I participated in MENAREC5 – the fifth Middle East, North Africa Renewable Energy Conference – in Marrakech, Morocco at which the prospects and challenges for regional cooperation in the Mena region were discussed. We have also contributed to other regional conferences, such as the 2012 World Energy Council in Turkey. Recently, I was invited to visit Montenegro and it was inspiring to learn of plans for accelerating the deployment of renewables. For Montenegro and the region, the strategic solutions and decisions that they adopt now will be critical in mapping out sustainable economic growth strategies. Therefore, Irena will work with Montenegro to organise a regional conference to explore cooperation on renewable energy technology deployment, which will be essential for sustainable future economic growth.

The European Investment Bank can and does do much to stimulate renewable energy projects both within and outside the EU, as is demonstrated by the recent sustainable energy access initiative. One of Irena’s strengths is our broad membership and the depth of knowledge and diversity of experiences this brings. In this regard we are fortunate that the European Union is a member of Irena (founded in 2009) as are 21 EU member states including Malta, while a further six EU states are signatories to our statute. Both Irena’s development and our ongoing work benefit from the accumulated renewable energy expertise that European countries bring.

We are already working with several regional entities. For example, the Cairo-based Regional Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (RCREEE) which works in the Middle East and North Africa is involved in Irena’s Global Wind and Solar Atlas project. The Atlas is an open-access resource that gathers data on renewable energy potential across the globe. RCREEE is also involved in Irena’s effort to develop a standardised format for renewable energy data reporting. We are open to and look forward to strengthening our relationships with complementary entities working in the Mediterranean region.

Could international financial services centres such as Malta help develop innovative financing mechanisms for enhancing renewable energies uptake regionally or globally (Special Purpose Vehicles, UCITS, bonds, etc.) designed to attract private /institutional savings (for example, individuals/ pension funds)?

The public sector can provide the enabling framework for renewable energy, but the real change in terms of the scale of investments in renewable energy is going to come from the private sector. Therefore, an important component of Irena’s work focuses on the business case for renewables. Renewable energy investments are no longer guided by conscience alone; they are business decisions. Finance mechanisms are indispensable for investments, and financing organisations play a key role in accelerating the deployment of renewables. However, Irena also recognises that the business case will vary among different countries and different regions. For some island or coastal states, coupling renewable energy with the tourist sector might provide real opportunities and finance mechanisms will need to be geared towards meeting these specific needs. In other cases, energy access and regional development might be a reason for renewable energy investments which would require a different set of finance mechanisms.

A partnership was launched in 2009 between Irena and the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development. Does Irena have/plan to develop partnerships with the multilateral development banks (World Bank and regional)? What are your expectations of Irena’s recent agreement with the International Energy Agency – perceived by environmental campaigners as giving far more prominence in future energy supplies to gas, nuclear, carbon capture and storage for coal-fired power stations than to renewable energies?

The Abu Dhabi Fund for Development is specifically geared towards innovative projects that have the potential to be replicated across the world. This is where Irena plays its role. We can draw on our members’ diverse experiences to identify projects that are truly transformative and that can be applied in different regions.

Multilateral development banks, including the World Bank and regional development banks, play a very real and practical role in the uptake of renewable energy particularly in developing countries. As relevant and knowledgeable stakeholders we actively engage with them in many different areas of our work: from the hosting of a workshop in Sydney, Australia on accelerating renewable uptake on islands to contributing to a report on the job creation potential of renewable energy and to an initiative promoting photovoltaic systems in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region. We are open to creating new partnerships with similar entities and are committed to strengthening our existing working relationships.

Irena’s partnership with the International Energy Agency (IEA) is of great importance to our work, as we often undertake complementary work. The IEA has been in place for almost 40 years, covers all energy sources and has vast experience working in the countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Meanwhile, Irena’s global mandate and exclusive focus on renewables allows for a more coherent view of the role that renewables can play in the energy system. As such, the two organisations are natural partners and are working closely together.

The Renewable Energy Policy Network’s REN 21 report (2011) indicates very high renewable energy growth rates, significant cost reductions since 2005 and the adoption of either policy targets or support measures in 119 countries. Yet the new UN Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) target to double the renewable energy share in global energy supplies by 2030 and implies (taking 2010 as a base year) an annual average growth rate of 3.5%. Isn’t this rather under-ambitious? And can just fulfilling such a target enable the full mid-century potential of renewable energies to be realised 20 years later (e.g. the 77% of world energy supplies in 2050 envisaged in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s ‘Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation’?) Should binding national targets be negotiated, at least for some of the major energy consuming nations?

If there is one thing that we have learned in the last four decades, it is the need for consistency. After the first oil peak in the 1970s, many governments invested in renewables but as soon as the price of oil decreased, so did their level of investment in renewables. That is not good enough. The same governments now realise that the need for renewables is even greater than it was 40 years ago. Irena is working to ensure that governments have the latest, most relevant information so that they can create consistent policies, which will encourage investment and enable them to realise the benefits of renewable energy.

The precise SE4All target can be debated, but what is most important is the message that the initiative conveys. If we achieve and maintain steady progress, we can continue to develop new technologies and expertise. This continuous progress will transform our current, unsustainable energy systems to a new energy paradigm based on renewables.

While the Group of 20 (G20) agreed in 2009 to phase out fossil fuel subsidies (estimated to reach $600bn this year), little has happened to date and the related text from the recent UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio (Rio+20) was disappointing. How far do continuing fossil subsidies hold back the uptake of renewable energies? And how far will the emerging huge new gas ‘boom’ (e.g. enormous new finds offshore East Africa), much hailed by IEA, constrain prospects for renewable energy development?

Irena is a positive organisation, focused on action, no matter what level this happens at. In 2009, nobody knew about fossil fuel subsidies and today there is no international agreement concerning the removal of subsidies. But regardless of this, progress is happening. The Rio+20 Declaration and the 2012 G20 Leaders’ Declaration both acknowledge the need for dealing with the issue of subsidies. Such high-profile recognition of this issue is creating global interest which is leading to change. We now have countries actively removing fossil fuel subsidies or taking steps to further understand the true impact of these subsidies. For example, at MENAREC5, Irena was invited to conduct a regional assessment of the economic and social impacts of the existing policy framework for energy. Overall, our role is to engage in such discussions, to bring them from the international negotiation tables to the policymakers in different governments and to the universities that are educating the next generation. The fact that this has started is encouraging; our task now is to accelerate this process, but we also must recognise that progress is never linear.

The new gas “boom” is one of those dynamic developments that shape the global energy mix. Gas has fewer greenhouse gas emissions than other fossil fuels, yet it still does not share the same advantages as renewable energy technologies. This means that renewable energy will still be the first choice for those investors and countries looking for energy systems that contribute to energy security, sustainable development – including by reducing emissions – poverty alleviation, employment creation and decentralised energy access. Furthermore, the growth of gas would provide certain opportunities for renewable energy. The replacement of coal with gas would increase the flexibility of the energy grid and the extension of gas infrastructure would also allow a wider penetration of biogas and bio-methane into our energy system.

What kind of technological breakthroughs would be needed to bring off-grid renewable energy based energy services to poor/remote rural areas in developing countries? Or are current technologies available now for/visualised for small islands already relevant? What is/can and should become the role of Irena’s Innovation and Technology Centre in this context?

Off-grid and mini-grid systems based on renewable sources are already proven and deployed across the world, from Africa to Australia. The technology is there but the output from these systems is often missing from national power supply or consumption statistics. This is due to the fact that they are often utilised to meet the needs of poor or remote rural areas which tend to be very low, so the output figures are also low. However, these technologies are having a tremendous impact on the ground, especially if they are coupled with productive uses of energy. In 2011, Irena highlighted the opportunities for renewables-based mini-grids and off-grids in Africa and we continue building upon this work through country-level Renewables Readiness Assessments.

How far does Irena focus on a) the ‘downside’ of many bio fuels (impacts on food growing capacity in developing countries); b) the high external costs of large-scale hydropower and the uncertainty of future related water supplies due to climate change impacts on rainfall patterns and c) energy efficiency?

Irena’s mandate is to accelerate the use of all forms of renewable energy, with a view to strengthening sustainable development. It is important therefore that the issues related to energy sources are addressed in a comprehensive manner so that we can avoid making the mistakes of the past. The characteristics of each renewable energy source and technology must be considered in relation to the particular context in which they are to be deployed. We see our role as ensuring that decision-makers have access to the most up-to-date and complete information to ensure that they can make the most appropriate decisions in relation to their resources and needs.

Due to increasing global energy needs, accelerating renewable energy deployment alone will not be enough to create the change we want. But through the combined efforts of energy efficiency and renewable energy deployment we can move towards the goal of ensuring energy access and also sustainability in the coming decades.

What are Irena’s working relations with a) industry, i.e. both industry renewable energy associations and major international firms active in the sector and b) non-governmental organisations?

One of my beliefs is that Irena will only be able to achieve its mandate with the involvement of all stakeholders. Therefore, we are an open platform where governments, private sector and non-governmental organisations can work to realise the potential of renewable energy. Our work with the Global Village Energy Partnership on creating new business models to reduce poverty by accelerating access to affordable and sustainable energy services is an example of this. We also have working partnerships with international organisations, research and development institutes, and individual projects. For example, in a recent Irena study on the costs of renewable energy, we received data from industry associations, who also assisted by undertaking peer review. Subsequently, the associations helped disseminate Irena’s findings.

We have been requested by our membership to create a business council. This will endeavour to provide private sector input to the decision-making process of governments in regard to renewables, and to further the relationship between the public and private sectors. Obviously there are major international firms involved in renewable energy, but we also have to realise and respect the influence that emerging markets will have and are already having on renewables. Therefore, Irena works to be inclusive of all relevant stakeholders, in all sectors and across the globe, in the working of our organisation.

Irena in 2020 and 2030. Your vision?

The European Island Agenda considers non-renewable energy sources as “provisional solutions, inadequate to solve in the long-term the energy problems of the islands’’. We agree with that and believe that this is the case not only for islands, but all countries and societies. Our vision is that in 2030 renewables will play a key role in a sustainable energy system that fosters economic growth while ensuring social development and protecting our environment for future generations.

If we make prudent decisions today, renewable energy solutions will become a cornerstone for national energy systems around the globe. International cooperation remains vital to this effort. Therefore Irena’s strategy for the future revolves around serving as the global voice for renewable energy and technologies, acting as an advisory resource and being the global network hub. To achieve this Irena will remain a flexible, inclusive and action-oriented organisation and will ensure that we stand ready to assist with technology, knowledge and policy guidance.

Our Renewables and Islands Summit in Malta is being held with this vision for the future very much in mind.