Two great forces are at work in the energy transition: digitalisation and materials science. Both are essential to the dawning of “a new energy era” in which the electricity generated from renewable sources can become the engine for economic growth and the wellbeing of citizens all over the world. This is in addition to being an enabling factor for the development of new business segments.
This revolution is already under way and it is constantly gathering momentum. Reaffirming as much were the participants at the ninth session of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). This was held from 11 to 13 January in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates and the location of the Agency’s headquarters. Attending the assembly were more than 1,200 delegates and observers including heads of state and government, ministers, representatives from the private sector, civil society and various organisations.
A decade of change
IRENA has grown rapidly since it was set up 10 years ago. During this time its membership has increased from 75 states to 160 (including the European Union), many of which are emerging countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Its success is partly due to the zeal and effectiveness of Adnan Zahir Amin, who has been its Director-General since 2011. Over the course of his two mandates, Amin has succeeded in reorganising the Agency, extending its scope and boosting its international profile. Now nearing the end of his second mandate, Amin is set to be replaced by the Italian Francesco La Camera, who was elected by the Assembly on 13 January. This followed a selection process lasting almost one year which was coordinated by the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Indeed the Assembly, which is composed of representatives of the member states, voted to appoint Amin as Director-General Emeritus as an acknowledgement of his extraordinary contribution to IRENA’s development.
Making a keynote speech at the event and participating as a panellist was Enel CEO Francesco Starace, who underlined the important role played by IRENA in the international growth of renewables. They are no longer viewed as a form of “alternative energy,” as they were 10 years ago. Instead they have become an essential component in the global energy mix, and continue to achieve surprising rates of growth.
Starace underlined the competitiveness of renewable energy. This is thanks to a “technological tsunami” which, in turn, has been driven by two factors. The first is digitalisation, which has redefined the ways we produce, distribute and consume electric energy. The second is the progress that has been made in materials science: this has led to huge drops in the price of solar panels, wind turbines and energy storage. Both have accelerated the success of generation from renewable sources.
“The notable change in the pace of technological evolution is a driving factor in the transformation of global energy systems. The growth in renewable energy is clearly an important aspect of this evolution, together with the profound digitalisation of the distribution networks”
– Francesco Starace, Enel CEO
The current trends are unstoppable and will continue to drive this transformation for many years to come.
The benefits of the new energy era
Technological innovation alone is not, however, enough. Starace pointed out that, in order to play a successful part in the energy transition, it is important to have a business model that is capable of generating inclusive and sustainable growth. Only in this way, in fact, will it be possible to seize the opportunities that present themselves along the way. Seen in this light, sustainability is opening up extraordinary economic opportunities, a point that was reiterated on numerous occasions during the Assembly’s fringe debates. On this front, there was significant interest in the data announced by Amin concerning the impact of renewables on the processes of job creation. According to the presentation made by the outgoing Director-General, in 2017 alone the number of jobs in the clean energy sector worldwide increased by 500,000. For the first time it exceeded the threshold of 10 million employees, on a global level.
The IRENA ninth Assembly’s schedule of events included a session on the launch of the report “A New World. The Geopolitics of the Energy Transformation” Amin had been the driving force behind this study, which was drafted by a special international commission. It is the first document of this type to be published by an international organisation and it includes a contribution from Enel. The study takes a systematic in-depth look at the combination of geopolitical impacts generated by the energy transition. In particular it focuses on new dynamics between nations, the redefinition of the concept of energy security, in addition to the international priorities dictated by the need to supply new strategic materials for the generation from renewable sources and energy storage.
“Renewable sources enable individual countries to strengthen their own energy security and increase their energy self-sufficiency, taking advantage of the huge local resources of renewable energy that can be found all over the world”
– Adnan Z. Amin, IRENA outgoing Director-General
The hope expressed by the commission that drew up the study is that the energy transition can also have a positive impact on reducing international tensions, above all those deriving from the geographical location of conventional resources, thus ushering in a new era of sustainable growth and widespread prosperity.