Renewables boss says world needs to prop up new energy system

Chief Europe Correspondent

Power grids, undersea cables and ports are overlooked yet essential connectors ensuring renewable energy can flow across great distances from production to consumption.

That’s a key takeaway from a virtual interview Cipher conducted earlier this month with Francesco La Camera, the director general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

The world must prioritize building up this physical infrastructure to speed up the energy transition, La Camera said from IRENA’s headquarters in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

“The structures that sustain the actual energy system [based on fossil fuels] are not enough to sustain the acceleration of the new energy system that is coming,” said La Camera, an Italian national appointed to the position in 2019. “The role of infrastructure should be understood.”

IRENA is a global intergovernmental agency founded in 2009 as renewable energy was gaining a foothold around the world. With 167 member countries, it has far more members than the well-known International Energy Agency, which has just 31 and was initially focused narrowly on oil security. IRENA’s stature is growing alongside renewables throughout the global economy, and the organization often partners with IEA.

Government ministries need to be re-organized to better reflect the green transition, universities need to refresh their curricula to train students for clean energy jobs and new legal regimes need to accelerate the deployment of renewables, La Camera said.

“These [current] structures are looking at the old energy system, not at the new energy system that is coming,” he said.

His comments come as renewable energy deployment faces economic headwinds sparked by inflation, high interest rates, supply chain problems and permitting delays in both the United States and Europe.

These setbacks don’t bode well for the United Nation’s major annual climate conference, known as COP28, which will take place in the UAE, where IRENA is headquartered, later this year. At the event, government leaders will do the first “global stocktake,” to assess progress on the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement goals. Headway on the ambition to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy has largely been considered insufficient.

“The governments and the institutions should say ‘we have not been able to [do] what we have been requested to do,” La Camera said about the upcoming COP28. “It will be very important that [they] come with a solution.”

The need to ramp up the physical infrastructure underpinning renewables has been growing more acute on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the U.S., wind and solar generators must wait years to put clean electricity on the grid due to a backlog of applications filed by companies to connect, according to a study published earlier this month by the U.S. Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The delays are symptoms of a wider problem: There are not enough modern transmission lines to support the transition from a fossil fuel-based, centralized system to a decarbonized, decentralized energy grid.

“We’ve been doing things the same way for 100 years and we’ve been building policies on top of each other,” James Hewett, manager for policy and advocacy at Breakthrough Energy said during a recent event in Washington, D.C, “How do we start to pull those bricks down and build the grid that we need?”

A similar debate is taking place in the European Union. Member countries are working to better connect their power lines across borders to rely on each other for electricity when needed and to bring more renewables online.

Sea routes and ports are also expected to play a growing role in the EU’s decarbonization goals, especially as the bloc hopes to import renewable hydrogen from distant countries, like Namibia.

Ports are also key for transporting equipment for offshore wind projects, a role industry groups hope the EU recognizes as part of a wider revision of its transportation infrastructure rules.

“Without these ports, the supply of renewable energy will be hampered,” Isabelle Ryckbost, the secretary general of European Sea Ports Organisation, said in a statement last week.

Lower income countries, especially, need massive investments in physical infrastructure, La Camera said.

Roughly 85% of global renewable energy investments benefitted less than 50% of the world’s population in 2022, according to IRENA. The entire continent of Africa—54 countries—accounted for only 1% of additional renewable capacity last year.

La Camera said international lenders need to channel more funds to developing countries and specifically target infrastructure, since “that also means promoting development.”

A push to reform the World Bank and free up more funds for climate lending has led the agenda at high-level meetings that concluded last week.

“Multilateral financial institutions have to focus…on accelerating the renewal or the building of physical infrastructure that may serve the new energy system,” La Camera said. “If this will happen with a clear plan, the private investment will come immediately after.”

Editor’s note: James Hewett is a manager for policy and advocacy at Breakthrough Energy, which also supports Cipher.