Pushing renewables up the agenda

The world's largest ever international conference on renewable energy concluded in Bonn last month with governments from 154 countries committing to work towards increasing the global share of renewables. But no firm targets for use of renewable energy were agreed on, despite the cherished hopes of environment groups and some countries, including host country Germany, that they would be.

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The main result so far of a vast gathering of government representatives and renewable energy lobbyists hosted by the German government in June was to give renewables an instant boost up the scale of energy policy priorities, at least for a week

The world's largest ever international conference on renewable energy concluded in Bonn last month with governments from 154 countries committing to work towards increasing the global share of renewables. But no firm targets for use of renewable energy were agreed on, despite the cherished hopes of environment groups and some countries, including host country Germany, that they would be.

Notwithstanding the absence of targets, the German hosts hailed the event as "a complete success" which paves the way for the transformation of global energy structures and a massive boost in the use of renewable energy. Certainly, the gathering of ministers, government representatives and organisations from around the globe, meeting for the first time on the subject of renewables, pushed the topic up the international energy agenda. A 600-strong media army reported on the four days of plenary sessions, side events and related seminars, debates and exhibitions.

Renewables 2004, held June 1-4 in the parliament buildings of the former West German government, was a follow up to the Johannesburg World Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002. "It was because we didn't get around to defining specific targets in Johannesburg that I issued an invitation to this conference," said German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

While a global renewables target proved elusive, the main outcome was a series of national and regional goals. This international action plan comprises 165 voluntary actions by governments and organisations. Most were a reiteration of existing commitments, but some commitments referred to relatively recent decisions and initiatives.

China declared its intention to supply 10% of its electricity from renewables by 2010. This will be equivalent to 60 GW of installed capacity -- with the bulk (50 GW) coming from small scale hydro; wind will provide 4 GW, biomass 6 GW and 450 MW will come from solar. By 2020, China is aiming for 121 GW of renewables -- 12% of generating capacity in a fast growing and energy-hungry economy. The targets will be implemented under the government's new national renewable energy strategy. The CNY 500 billion ($60 billion) needed for the program will come from a number of sources including the government.

The Philippines announced its goal to double renewables capacity to 4700 MW by 2013. This would make it the largest generator of geothermal energy in the world and the leading wind energy producer in south-east Asia.

Compared with the announcements by developing economies, the industrialised nations dragged their feet, according to Steve Sawyer from Greenpeace International. Apart from a handful of governments, the majority fell short of offering the real new projects and commitments Schröder had hoped for when he called the conference.

Fighting poverty

The major preoccupation in the conference hall was the role of renewables in fighting poverty in developing countries where lack of access to energy is a major obstacle to economic growth. Klaus Toepfer, who heads the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), pointed out that nearly 1.6 billion people -- 25% of the world's population -- have no access to electricity. In Kenya, where UNEP is headquartered, that figure is over 90%, he said.

Toepfer called for developed countries to lead by example, saying developing countries can be suspicious of moving to what they see as untried technology. "We need to prove that renewable energy resources and resource efficient technologies are first rate. To do this, we need leadership from developed countries," he said.

In two days of "multi-stakeholder dialogue" with governments, regional bodies, the financial sector and non government organisations (NGOs), much of the discussion inevitably centred around problems with finding the money to finance the investment needed to meet the aspirations for renewables. Policy frameworks to support investment must be "loud, long and legal," the conference heard. Jamal Saghir from the World Bank said that many developing countries have weak policy and regulatory environments. Unless countries can attract commercial financing, scaling up of renewables will be impossible, he said.

Among a raft of new financing initiatives announced at the conference, the World Bank unveiled plans to increase its funding to renewables and energy efficiency projects by 20% a year for five years. The World Bank's Peter Woicke claims that by 2010 annual lending to renewables will amount to $400 million -- effectively double its level of support. The bank's Global Environment Facility is to commit $100 million a year to create markets for renewables in developing countries. It expects the funding to support projects worth $500-600 million annually. To date, however, the wind industry has found the World Bank's red tape a significant barrier, with developers shunning the bank as a source of finance because of the time involved in reaching a loan agreement. The European Investment Bank announced that up to 50% of its financing for electricity generation in the EU will be to renewables. This will mean some EUR 700 million a year by 2010.

Helping hand from oil

The conference's timing -- coinciding with high oil prices -- made the case for renewables all the more compelling. Schröder stressed that high fossil fuel prices destroy opportunities for economic development around the world. The current hike in oil prices is costing developing countries an additional $60 billion, he said. He drew attention to recent terrorist attacks on oil facilities and oil workers. "The extreme dependency of the global economy on oil enormously increases our vulnerability to this kind of terrorism," he said. "We need to expand the use of renewable and decentralised energy sources in order to help increase security in the one world we live in."

Schröder announced Germany's plans to set up a renewable energy fund for Latin America and the Caribbean. Under an agreement concluded at the conference with the Inter-American Development Bank, the EUR 500 million fund will provide low-interest loans for renewables projects starting from 2005.

Germany's pledges of co-operation with developing countries and, indeed, its decision to host the conference, were not driven by purely altruistic motives. Creating new export markets is a top agenda item for German wind energy now that the country's own wind energy potential is almost fully exploited and the domestic market is declining. The federal environment ministry believes the swiftly growing international wind and solar markets will build up to a global annual turnover of EUR 200 billion within the next 20 years. It says German exports could bag a global market share of 20%, or around EUR 40 billion by 2020.

The conference was the pivot for a large number of satellite events run by German and international organisations including UN umbrella groups, international finance institutions, environment groups, a plethora of national governments and the EU. Showcasing mostly German industry was the Business Forum Renewables in a tent village near the conference venue.

With biomass meeting the energy needs of around half the population of the world, the subject figured strongly throughout the conference -- including a "Day of Biomass" side event. The only other technology to merit a full day of presentations was geothermal power.

The most prominent flag-flyer for wind was German turbine manufacturer Enercon, whose nacelle and turbine blade took pride of place opposite the main venue. The European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) shared a stand along with seven sister renewable energy groups. Nearly 60 organisations exhibited in the exhibition outside the plenary chamber in the International Congress Centre. The United Nations, with ten sub-organisations, had by far the largest presence in the exhibition hall.

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