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Renewables May Be Booming; But Shifting from Fossil Fuels Is Being Hindered By …

Projects that could generate more than 1TW of renewable energy are still waiting to be constructed and connected to the grid in all parts of the world, due to delays in permitting and a lack of investment in grid infrastructure.

First, the good news: The amount of clean energy being generated worldwide is at record levels. Capacity increased by almost 10 percent in the last 12 months; and an impressive 83 percent of all new power that came on stream was produced by renewable-energy systems such as wind and solar. While the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) warns that the sector must grow to three times its current level by 2030 if we are to stay on a 1.5° Celsius pathway, the consistent growth shows “the resilience of renewable energy amidst the lingering energy crisis,” says IRENA Director-General Francesco La Camera.

However, new data show that while clean-energy installation continues to soar, a number of barriers remain that are making it hard for many economies to shift fully away from fossil fuels.

REN21’s latest Renewables in Energy Supply module, launched as part of its annual Renewables 2023 Global Status Report, suggests a lack of attention has been paid to energy technologies and carriers beyond wind and solar power. Deficient policies, permit bottlenecks and uneven investment are exacerbating the problem, according to the think tank.

The group has examined the way final energy is distributed among heat, fuel and electricity; geographies and technologies — including bioenergy, geothermal power and heat, heat pumps, hydrogen, hydropower, solar PV, concentrated solar power, solar thermal heat, ocean power and wind power. Right now, the global energy supply base is split between providing heat (49 percent) and fuel (29 percent), with electricity having the lowest share (22 percent). In 2022, the share of renewables across the entire power sector reached 30 percent, largely thanks to favourable long-term policies that have helped to drive down costs. ‘But across all sectors, renewables cover just 12.7 percent of the total energy system — which is a relatively low share in the larger scheme of things,” REN21 Executive Director Rana Adib told Sustainable Brands®.

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An exploration of the other energy carriers — fuels and heat, which provide most of the world’s energy — reveals what Adib claims to be “dismal” renewable energy shares of just 3.6 percent and 9.2 percent, respectively.

“It shows that efforts are narrowly focused on transitioning the power supply. Such a limited focus is ultimately slowing the shift to a renewables-based system, delaying efforts to reach the Sustainable Development Goals and maintaining the status quo of energy insecurity,” she adds.

Both the International Energy Agency (IEA) net-zero scenario and IRENA’s 1.5° Celsius scenario suggest that electricity will supply just 50 percent of our total energy by the middle of the century. That’s why it’s crucial more attention is paid to renewable heat and fuels, as well as diversifying renewable-energy technologies, Adib says.

“We cannot continue to neglect the other carriers — renewable heat and fuels — if we are serious about cutting emissions and addressing the climate, energy and poverty crises. It took time, investment and policy attention to expand to 30 percent renewable power. We now need to award heat and fuels similar policy attention to achieve the critical shift we need.”

So, what does that look like? Are there some quick wins from a policy point of view that might help to shift the renewables market? One very quick win would be to address the permitting issues that continue to cause delays, Adib says: “If there’s political will, it can happen. But governments need to stop sending mixed signals on fossil fuels. They continue to subsidize fossil fuels when clearly renewables are the least-cost option; but they are not operating in a level playing field.”

Currently, projects that could generate more than 1 terawatt of renewable energy are still waiting to be constructed and connected to the grid in all parts of the world, due to delays in permitting and a lack of investment in grid infrastructure. “It's like, you manufacture cars and wait for roads. When we built cars, we did it with confidence that roads will accompany the process. The same thought and action process must apply to renewables,” she asserts.

What role can the business community play on the demand side? After all, companies are not passive bystanders in this debate; demand will fuel supply, so to speak. Adib wants businesses to continue being strong allies for renewables by investing in their own clean-energy capacities, moving to renewable electricity, changing vehicle fleets to electric, and showing a willingness to participate in the energy and heat transition.

Proving to governments that there is absolutely the demand for clean energy is crucial — especially at a time when the pro-fossil fuel movement is as strong as ever and getting more difficult to identify, due to the prevalence of greenwashing.

“Right now, there’s a real push for hydrogen. But the reality is that, globally, just 1 percent of the hydrogen produced is produced from renewable energy — all the rest is fossil-fuel-based,” Adib says. “So, this already requires quite of a technical understanding of what is happening. That’s a big risk.

“The energy crisis has shown the importance of security of supply. To shield us from new crises, policymakers must immediately ramp up efforts in all renewable-energy technologies — including hydropower, geothermal, ocean, CSP and bioenergy. If we don’t quickly evolve these alongside solar PV and wind, we will still need to depend on coal, oil and gas, and nuclear for our energy supply well into the future.”