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Renewables take centre stage

Steve Sawyer, GWEC

At the first World Future Energy Summit (WFES) in Abu Dhabi, early 2008, the agenda was dominated by fossil fuel companies seeking to paint themselves green – while maintaining the status quo with a few tweaks and some carbon capture and storage (CCS). Steve Sawyer returned for the second WFES in January 2009, and found the oil companies still there, but now competing with renewables for the spotlight.

What a difference a year made for the World Future Energy Summit (WFES).

This year the hot exhibitions and sessions were firmly rooted in the context of energy security and climate change, and with a much greater focus on renewable energy. The wind energy sector was well represented by Siemens, Vestas, Suzlon, Winwind, E-Concern, E.ON Renewables and Alstom, a marked contrast with last year's exhibition – where Siemens had a lonely model turbine on the corner of their stand, the only one in sight.

This is a sign that the Summit is making rapid progress towards its goal of becoming the ‘Davos of Energy’. It may also have something to do with the fact that MASDAR (‘the source’ in Arabic) has really stepped out on to the investment scene globally in the past year. The organisation has partnered with E.ON and Dong in the 1000 MW London Array offshore wind project, and has taken a major stake in Winwind, a young Finnish turbine manufacturer with advanced technology and global ambitions.

Twelve months ago MASDAR was a curiosity – now it's become a player to be reckoned with in the global renewables market. The wind session was also of a much higher quality, with an all-star cast featuring Vestas ceo Ditlev Engel; E.ON Renewables head Frank Mastiaux; Siemens Renewables' René Umlauft; Winwind chairman Lassi Laponen; and wind guru Andrew Garrad.

More sun than wind

But the fact is that the Emirates is one of the few countries in the world without much in the way of wind resources. There might be some, and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is doing a wind-mapping exercise of the country, but the real renewables interest and one of the main drivers for the MASDAR project is the huge potential in this part of the world for solar: concentrating solar power (CSP), photovoltaics (PV), concentrated PV (CPV), and solar hot water. Most of the major players in these industries were among the nearly 400 companies exhibiting at the Abu Dhabi Exhibition and Convention Center – a facility, by the way, which has more than doubled in size in the last year. It is now a really first class facility which handled the more than 16,000 attendees without ever really seeming crowded.

Headliners included HRH Prince Willem-Alexander, Prince of Orange, and his wife Princess Maxima; IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri; Lord Nicholas Stern; Tony Blair; Danish Climate and Energy Minister Connie Hedegaard; and EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs.

The conference was opened by HH General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the UAE; and Dr Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of MASDAR. There were repeated statements about the need to seek opportunity in the economic crisis to attack the twin challenges of energy security and climate change, with Prince Willem-Alexander adding his usual focus on a subject which is fundamental to both - water.

IPCC Chairman Pachauri not only set the context for the climate issue, he also presided over the awarding of the first Zayed Future Energy Prize, as chairman of the section committee. Named after the founder of the UAE, the prize rewards those who have made “significant contributions in the global response to the future of energy”.

The first recipient of the US$1.5 million would-be Nobel Prize for Energy was Dipal Chandra Barua, founding managing director of Grameen Shakti - for his visionary efforts to bring renewable energy solutions to the rural population of Bangladesh. Receiving the US$350,000 runner-up award was Australian Dr Martin Green, a solar pioneer from the University of New South Wales.

The Summit would not have been complete without a major announcement from the host. Last year, it was US$15 billion from the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund that was being invested into the MASDAR City, the world's first 100% CO2 emissions free city, and planned for the region. This year it was the announcement of a renewable energy target for Abu Dhabi. To my knowledge, this is the first time a charter member of OPEC has done such a thing. Although the announced target of 7% of electricity from renewables by 2020 may seem small, it is not inconsiderable, as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has the third most energy-intense economy in the world.

Overall, the rapidly growing and maturing MASDAR initiative, announced just three years ago, is already making a difference.

Brazil at an energy crossroad

My second escape from the cold, rainy northern European winter was to Brazil in the first week of February. Blessed with massive hydro resources, and one of the very few countries in the world to respond adequately to the oil crises of the 1970s by developing its world-leading sugarcane ethanol industry, Brazil is both independent of fossil fuel imports and in possession of an electricity system which is more than 80% ‘renewable’. But faced with a growing economy and increasing energy demand, and with climate change making its hydro resources less reliable, Brazil is at an energy crossroad. Will it finally embrace ‘new’ renewable technology to make up its shortfall, or will it build a new generation of fossil fuel-fired thermal plants? It's an open question.

I had the opportunity to visit Ceará state in north-eastern Brazil for a seminar hosted aboard the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, which was touring the northeast coast of Brazil after an expedition up the Amazon. Ceará's capital, Fortaleza, is one of Brazil's centres of wind energy development, boasting fantastic wind resources, smooth constant winds almost always out of the southeast, and yielding onshore capacity factors well in excess of 40%. This is impressive if not yet a record; the highest I know of for an operating project is 49%.

Most of the 94 MW of wind power installed in Brazil in 2008 was in Ceará. Enercon subsidiary Wobben Windpower has a manufacturing plant there, and Suzlon is supplying turbines for projects in the state. Both Vestas and Argentine manufacturer IMPSA are also moving into the market.

At the seminar, the president of the Northeast Development Bank (Banco do Nordeste), the Governor of the State, and representatives of the Brazilian Wind Energy Association (ABEEolica), all made a strong case for wind energy development in the region. They cited Ceará's excellent wind resources, the growing economy, dependence on electricity imports and the desire to keep the energy network clean and sustainable. Also on hand was Federal Deputy Paulo Texeira, who along with colleagues in the Brazilian House of Representatives has established a Renewable Energy Commission to pursue legislation that aims to support the development of non-hydro renewables in Brazil.

Entrenched bureaucracy – and a wind auction

So what's the problem? As is so often the case, the problem is an entrenched energy bureaucracy which only ‘knows’ the large, centralised power generation models of the previous century, with the constant claim that renewables in general and wind in particular are ‘too expensive’.

More expensive than hydro, to be sure, but if Brazil could supply all of its growing electricity needs (estimated to be growing at about 5,000 MW per year) with hydro, it would. It can't, and the options favoured by the energy ministry at the moment seem to be either nuclear or fossil-fuelled thermal generation, which in the case of the Northeast, at least, would be much more expensive than wind power. ABEEolica estimates (conservatively) that there are in excess of 140,000 MW of exploitable wind power potential in the country; that is nearly 1.5 times Brazil's current total installed electric generation capacity.

A programme called ProInfa, designed by the previous Government to spur the development of wind, small hydro and biomass generation, and implemented in the past few years, has not yielded the desired results – more from design flaws in the programme than from the inadequacy of the technology. ProInfa is nevertheless expected to result in the installation of more than 450 MW of wind in 2009, but then it expires. So what comes next?

As a result of constant pressure from the Northeast and Southeast Governors, ABEEolica, the Renewable Energy Commission, and civil society, some of the more enlightened energy planners are looking at holding a wind auction late this year. The understanding is that they will set a horizon for the auctioning of wind power tenders for the next 10 years or so, with a 20-year PPA attached. The only question remaining is the price, as rather than setting a minimum price, the energy ministry will set a price cap! Yes, it's a strange notion of an auction, but that's how they do things in Brazil.

Whether or not the promising young Brazilian wind industry gets off to a running start hinges on the success or failure of this auction. Brazilian energy planners have just opened a public comment period on the proposal, which is expected to attract a great deal of interest. Stay tuned.

Finally, we are struggling as I write to come up with our five-year projections for the wind industry. After a banner year in 2008, a great cloud of uncertainty hangs over the world's largest wind power market, the USA. While a political deal has just been reached on President Obama's stimulus package, and we're still awaiting final language, so far it looks good for renewables. Hopefully, there will soon be new signs of life in the US market.

About the author

Steve Sawyer joined GWEC as the first secretary general on 2 April 2007. He has worked in the energy and environment field since 1978, with a particular focus on climate change and RE since 1988.

He spent 30 years working for Greenpeace, primarily on a wide range of energy issues. He was the ceo of both Greenpeace USA (1986 – 1988) and Greenpeace International (1988 – 1993), and he served as Head of Delegation to many Kyoto Protocol negotiations on climate change. He also lead delegations to the Johannesburg Earth Summit in 2002 and numerous sessions of the Commission on Sustainable Development. He is also a founding member of the REN21 Renewable Energy Policy Network and was a member of the Steering Committee of the Renewables 2004 ministerial conference in Bonn. He has also been an expert reviewer for the IPCC's Working Group III.




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Energy infrastructure  •  Energy storage including Fuel cells  •  Photovoltaics (PV)  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Solar electricity  •  Wind power