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Figueres told some 500 delegates at the two-day Amsterdam event that the global renewable energy revolution was ‘unstoppable, irreversible and exponential’, with governments, financial institutions and corporates increasingly supporting the policy and technical advances enabling the trend.
However, she noted that there are three areas that ‘need attention’ as the solar industry evolves in both developed nations and emerging markets.
The first area of concern is what Figueres called the democratisation of energy. “Poverty is still a major issue for off-grid communities, which are not yet electrified,” she noted. “The conversation about renewables here is not yet won. We have to understand what is stopping the advance of solar to poorer people’s homes – is it suppliers’ business models or are there deeper social issues? Solar energy is a powerful force to democratise energy, but the industry needs to look at that issue.”
A second area of concern is the existing financial infrastructure which has so far proved extremely successful in ‘bringing renewable energies on board’ – the auction system. “I’m getting nervous that we are reaching a point where energy auctions might be working against our longer-term objectives,” Figueres said. With very competitive prices, are firms starting to cannibalise each other to undercut operations, and therefore endangering the commercial viability of some bidders?
At this critical point, the industry cannot afford any lack of performance, where it might be accused of winning energy auctions but ultimately failing to build capacity. “The solar industry should be careful not to undermine itself. Stretch and challenge your competitors, yes, but do not undercut.”
A third concern also relates to the exponential growth in solar power generation in recent years: the carrying capacity of the energy system overall. An often-stated target is to move to 100% renewable energy within given, 10 or more years, yet how precisely will existing systems get there? Storage is still lacking despite significant R&D spend on generation capacity.
Storage capacity building may have to move quicker – and catch up to energy generation -- or soft barriers to adoption will start to emerge, Figueres said. “Should solar providers start to consider partnerships with other utility providers…or look at energy solutions packages? It needs some innovative thinking. The ultimate aim is the optimisation of demand and supply.”
With market forces providing a ‘wind at our backs’, and technology advances making solar energy demonstrably competitive, the industry can address new challenges like this because it is now recognised as ‘an adult at the table’.
Among other questions raised at the session were how to bridge the enduring North-South economic divide to deliver the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Renewable energy, and solar in particular, is seen as one of the bridges. Asked about next steps towards the blended finance solutions needed to support the renewable energy sector, Figueres advised: “We know we need cross sector collaboration to attract private sector capital. Just do it!”