6 December 2015

India and Africa just went big on renewable energy


The full name of the two week climate change summit currently taking place in Paris sounds like a Charles Dickens parody. The 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change could be the creation of Little Dorrit’s Circumlocution Office. But amidst the often arcane bureaucracy and impenetrable jargon, this process is slowly reshaping the global energy system.

Although talks in the Parisian suburb of Le Bourget will continue until next weekend, countries have been announcing their national policy plans, a useful indicator for investors on where the best energy bets will be in the coming years. This week two of the biggest developing country blocs went big on renewable energy. On Monday India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the Solar Alliance, a group of more than 120 countries which aim to spread cheap solar technology across the globe by pooling policy knoweldge and technology. Businesses backing the project include Areva, Enel, Engie, HSBC France and Tata Steel. India’s perceived lack of willingness to embrace low carbon energy is often cited by some as a reason climate change is impossible to address. But Modi’s plan to install 175 gigawatts of renewable energy (enough to power 130 million Indian homes) by 2022 suggests otherwise. This week in Paris Modi said: “Solar technology is evolving, costs are coming down and grid connectivity is improving. The dream of universal access to clean energy is becoming more real. This will be the foundation of the new economy of the new century.”

Only two days later the African Union went a step further, announcing plans to mobilise 10 GW of renewable power within five years and a whopping 350 GW of renewable power by 2030. To put that into perspective that is double Africa’s entire current energy production of 150 GW. The announcement was backed by $2.2 billion of investment from the French government with more to follow from other developed nations. And Africa doesn’t appear to be stopping there. In October Akinwumi Adesina, President of the Africa Development Bank, revealed the extent of the continent’s renewable energy ambitions. “We have enormous natural resources for clean energy in Africa,” he said. “We have the potential to deploy 11 terawatts of solar energy, 350 GW of hydro, 110 GW of wind and 15 GW of geothermal.”

For India and Africa renewable energy is a logical choice. It is much quicker to build a wind farm or a solar array compared to the drawn out process of building a nuclear or coal fired power station which as the UK is finding, can take decades to get online. Not only does this produce a quicker return for investors it also more immediately meets energy needs. Crucially it’s also far more versatile for remote parts of the world. A solar panel and wind turbine can provide localised power without the long wait to hook up a community with the traditional fossil powered grid. For much of remote Africa and India that will be a wait that may never be worth the infrastructure cost.

Other significant moves in the shift towards renewable energy in Paris last week included a decision by Dubai to launch a $27 billion programme to make solar panels mandatory for all rooftop buildings by 2030 as part of plans to generate 25% of its energy from clean sources by 2030, rising to 75% by 2050. Even new Dad Mark Zuckerberg, along with Bill Gates, Richard Branson and 22 other entrepreneurs also got in on the fun with the launch of an investment platform for renewables which will help spark further research and development into the latest technologies driving costs down. Gates said: “Private companies will ultimately develop these energy breakthroughs, but their work will rely on the kind of basic research that only governments can fund. Both have a role to play.”

This global shift was summed up by Mark Lewis, Managing Director of research at Barclays, who said “the impact of renewables has been much more disruptive than anyone foresaw. There is a huge tide flowing. We can decide in which direction we choose to swim, but we can’t control the tide.”

The UK’s recent policy U-turns in renewable energy mean it is trying to swim in the wrong direction. Some of the poorest countries in the world see solar and onshore wind as the cost effective choice, meanwhile one of the richest countries claims the same technologies are too expensive. They can’t both be right.

In fact despite the rhetoric of “affordability” the UK has actually chosen some of the most expensive power options imaginable – the most expensive nuclear plant in history and a huge investment in offshore wind technology – while going to war with the two cheapest renewables for nakedly ideological reasons. Experts and economists are baffled. Once upon a time the world looked to the UK for leadership on climate change, now the UK should look to Africa and India to see what the low carbon leaders of the future look like.

Joe Ware is Church & Campaigns Journalist at Christian Aid.