Interview with Francesco La Camera (IRENA)
The power system transformation is about flexibility, isn’t it?
Yes, flexibility will be key to scaling up the decarbonisation of power systems. Solar, wind and other renewable energy sources, together with improved energy efficiency, form our most effective and ready solution for lowering carbon emissions within the next decade. IRENA’s Global Energy Transformation: A Roadmap to 2050 shows that meeting the Paris Agreement objectives will require an 86% share of renewables in global electricity generation by mid-century. Among the different renewable power generation options, low-cost solar PV and wind power could account for more than 60% of the total electricity generated globally. Renewables are practical, affordable and climate-safe.
Operating power systems with high shares of renewable energy is possible. Countries like Norway, Costa Rica and Uruguay have already for a long time been exploiting their hydropower potential as a clean and controllable resource to run power systems based on nearly 100% renewables. But today, there are also many examples of countries that operate their power systems with a high share of variable renewables, such as wind energy and solar PV. Denmark, for example, manages an electricity system with close to 50% share of renewables to cover its annual electricity demand. In fact, Germany has reached 50% renewable power generation in the second quarter of this year.
These examples demonstrate that today, countries can plan for a future with high shares of renewable energy. Variable renewables like sun and wind require more flexible and integrated power systems. This is one of the reasons why innovation is broadening beyond power-generation to address transmission and distribution as well as demand. Innovative solutions in business models, market design, enabling technologies and system operation are lowering the cost of integrating higher shares of renewables while making energy production, transmission and consumption more flexible. Every country can tailor its mix of generation technologies and flexibility solutions to its own particular context. There are multiple pathways to increase flexibility in support of the integration of renewable energy. The point in common is that flexibility is key.
Is Europe in the lead?
Europe is a global front-runner in the energy transition. IRENA’s analysis showed that the EU had the potential to cost-effectively increase the share of renewables in its energy mix to 34% by 2030. We were pleased to see that our assessment was taken into consideration when adopting the ambitious target of at least 32% renewables by 2030.
With close to 15% share of variable renewables in annual electricity generation today, the EU has the highest levels of variable renewables in power systems globally. The region’s success shows us that innovation is creating an energy transformation that is technically feasible and economically attractive. Implementing the EU’s Clean Energy package will further boost innovation, and the EU can continue to support the rest of the world by exporting innovative solutions in the fight against climate change.
What are the game changer innovations to look forward to?
A massive but cost-effective scale-up of renewable power is of utmost importance. Power sector transformation is strongly accelerated by innovation trends in digitalization, decentralization and electrification of the end-use sectors. In this context, IRENA has conducted a thorough assessment of 30 emerging innovations allowing for a higher integration of renewables into the power system. IRENA’s Innovation Landscape for a Renewables-Powered Future finds that only a combination of innovative solutions in all four dimensions of enabling technologies, market design, system operation and business models can make power systems fit for the future.
Specific attention should be given to the electrification of energy demand. The advent of Electric Vehicles, for example, is going to be a game-changer for renewable power.. Our projections suggest that in 2050 more than one billion electric vehicles will be on the road worldwide. The cumulative storage capacity of these “batteries on wheels” would dwarf stationary battery capacity, adding immense flexibility in support of the integration of more renewables in power systems.
In the medium term, clean hydrogen could become a game changer too. Hydrogen is enjoying unprecedented political and business momentum with policies and projects around the world expanding rapidly. IRENA estimates that in 2050, hydrogen could account for 8% of global energy use. Hydrogen from renewable power - so called green hydrogen - is technically viable and quickly approaching economic competitiveness due to a combination of falling renewable power cost and falling capital cost for electrolyzers. Green hydrogen is developing into a promising solution for hard-to-decarbonise sectors such as energy-intensive industries, trucks, aviation, shipping and heating applications.