Exclusive interview: GWEC chief Ben Backwell on COP26 and what the wind industry needs for net-zero

Ben Backwell on what keeps him awake at night, why working with governments and communities is crucial, and hopes for COP26

GWEC chief executive Ben Backwell
GWEC chief executive Ben Backwell

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This is a feature from Windpower Monthly's October 2021 issue. Click here to read the full edition

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In order to get to the wind capacity that is necessary to reach net zero — over 8TW by 2050 — we need to be deploying three to four times faster than we currently are on an annual basis. And we need to make significant progress in this decade to get there. There is no point in people coming up with bigger targets if we are not on the right trajectory. Things need to speed up very quickly to make these targets realistic.

Expecting to get to 2030 and then suddenly for wind installations to hit 290GW — which is what the International Energy Agency (IEA) says we need per year — is simply not realistic. We need to start scaling up annual installations now to get to that level, and then steadily build through the 2030s and 40s.

We had a record year last year at 93GW. But three quarters of that came from China and the US, which raises the question of what is going on everywhere else. What keeps me awake at night is that deployment has been sluggish in many markets, and it is glacial in a lot of emerging markets.

In south-east Asia, with the exception of Vietnam, and Africa, things have been going way, way too slowly. Then there are markets, such as India and Germany, that are very important from the point of view of the transition, where things are not going anywhere near fast enough.

We need to really work together with governments, communities and investors to create viable investment frameworks and markets that are built for the energy transition, and which allow countries to renew infrastructure and replace the old fossil-fuel infrastructure.

We need to work very hard on that market design. It will not happen with business as usual. It needs a proactive intervention in many cases to make sure that it works properly.

The whole permitting system — with very few exceptions — is not fit for purpose, and puts all the risk on investors and developers. Processes are so onerous that it takes too many years to get to the project, and by then you’ve sunk in a lot of time, as well as a lot of risk. We’re in a climate emergency and there is one clear solution to the energy system. We need planning systems that are fit for purpose.

With Covid-19, governments took a lot of proactive actions that they would never have imagined taking before. We really need the same thing to happen with the climate emergency. We need a step-change. We need to ask ourselves: ‘How do we get to these targets? What needs to change?’ And then we need to take away all the red tape and all the obstacles that are in the way.

We just don’t see the level of action and commitment for climate change that is needed. What we do see — and what is hopeful — is that there is a recognition now of the scale of the problem and the urgency needed. There are plenty of targets and ambitions being set, and that is really good, but we don’t see that practical implementation drive and the enabling environment needed to do this.

Some of the big energy companies are moving into the renewable space, and particularly into offshore wind. That’s a good thing. It is a small proportion of their investment and capability at the moment, and we would like to see a much bigger proportion deployed. But what is different from ten years ago, is that there is plenty of money, plenty of investment, and the oil and gas companies have plenty of balance sheet capacity that they could deploy.

The problem that we face is that there are not enough projects, or it takes too long to get the projects going. If you look at offshore wind, the competition is immense for viable projects that you know can get delivered.

We will need a huge workforce to carry out this transition. It needs to be diverse, with more young people. It needs to bring in new ideas as well as talents and skills, and it needs to help people convert from the old industries into the new industries.

But a lot more needs to be done, especially on the education and training side, to create clear career pathways — not just for technicians, but also in permitting, project financing, putting the projects together and marketing. There are hundreds of different skills we need in the wind industry.

COP (the UN global climate change summit) has been a motor for the energy transition because it is where governments meet to get galvanised about taking action. It is a cumbersome process with hundreds of governments, but the Paris Agreement (the international treaty on climate change signed at Cop21 in December 2015) was tremendously important for us as an industry and for renewables as a whole, as it started to set a bar for what is really necessary to create a liveable environment.

We think COP26 in particular is significant because it will set the revised NDCs (nationally determined contributions), which we hope should be compatible with the 1.5C trajectory for limiting global temperature increases. It is a very significant COP because it is setting the new action plan to implement the ambition of the Paris Agreement. It should be a gamechanger. It should set the agenda for the next 30 years and set a clear pathway to where we need to go.

I think COP26 (which kicks off in Glasgow on 31 October) will be judged a success if everyone is able to agree on the NDCs and the level of commitment, but we also need the action plans that follow that and the commitments on the policy side. For us as an industry we need to see concrete actions around implementation.

What we have been trying to do with the Global Wind Energy Coalition for COP26 is to really bring together the leading companies and associations to say to the policymakers: ‘We are here. We are a key part of this, and we completely support your efforts to reach your ambition.’

We need to work together to make it happen. We are almost trying to pull people back, and ask, ‘How do we do this?’ And that is our real aim. Can we get the attention of policymakers to commit to measures that will have an impact in the short and medium term. That is the real challenge. It is not just about signing a piece of paper, it is about getting things done on the ground.

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