Fresh impressions from Geneva on sustainable energy

The Committee on Sustainable Energy is always an interesting and diverse event. The aim of the meeting is to come up with recommendations and input to the project on “Pathways to sustainable energy”.

Obviously, being a UNECE project, the focus is on Europe, especially on countries and states such as those in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The challenges focus around the energy trilemma – providing energy security, while making energy affordable and available to all, but whilst also mitigating environmental consequences.

The meeting agenda and scope is broad, dealing with all aspects of making energy more sustainable However, the expertise within the room is also broad, reflecting the diversity of the delegates who attend, each with their own focus and concerns:

  • Firstly, there are the country representatives, whose priorities are obviously to provide energy to their population whilst reducing emissions and effects. But each has their own agenda. For example, Kyrgyzstan is a relatively poor country with a heavy reliance on hydro power. As demand increases, they must secure new baseload power and, for them, options such as coal, gas and nuclear offer more security than renewable options. The Russian delegate noted that a move from coal to gas in Russia, whilst reducing CO2 emissions, would increase the cost of power by at least 40% and could cause significant issues in coal-mining regions which rely heavily on coal for employment.
  • Then there are industry representatives. Nuclear agencies wish to promote the potential for nuclear to provide baseload power with zero CO2 And, whilst some countries, such as those in Eastern Europe, are seriously considering this option, there are others who regard this, due to personal opinion, as madness, and are not afraid to say so.
  • There are NGOs and the proponents of renewable energy, who argue that costs of wind and solar are coming down and that advancements in grids and batteries will enable a complete move away from fossil fuels. And then there are those who argue that this solution is technically quite a few years off. One delegate pointed out that, for rapid renewable uptake in the USA, 4 trillion dollars would need to be spent on batteries – 19x the cost of current total electricity demand in the USA. The availability of rare earth metals and other specialist materials for the large-scale production of batteries would also be a significant issue.
  • There are economists who suggest that taxes and subsidies need to be leveraged to force a move away from fossil fuel, going (politely) head-to-head with those who argue that such financial mechanisms merely lead to cost-increases for consumers. Consumers do not get to choose what form of power feeds on to the grid and so changes in cost achieve nothing – the changes need to happen at the policy or government level.
  • There are the end-user representatives, concentrating on efficiency of homes and buildings and the need for a circular economy.
  • And then there was me, on behalf of the IEACCC, raising the issue of funding for coal projects. Many international funding agencies are moving away from coal. However, coal projects still receive funding. The problem is that most of the funding comes from sources which are hard to identify. This also means that we don’t know how the power plants qualify for this funding or do they have to be carbon capture ready. it is not possible to determine whether this funding comes with the requirement that the coal project for which it is provided meets minimum requirements (such as a carbon capture ready HELE plant). There is the potential that funding is still made available for subcritical coal plants, which will lock inefficient emissions into the global budget for decades.

And so, the agenda of the UNECE Sustainable Energy meeting is as broad as it is challenging. It is both a reminder that each energy sector is just a part of a bigger problem, and a warning that there must be coordination between sectors to reach what should be a unified goal of cleaner electricity.

With respect to fossil fuels, there have been a few conflicting issues within the current project work, as highlighted by Barry Worthington of the US Energy Association. For example, the focus on coal is often highly negative, often underplaying the bridging potential of HELE coal technologies. Further, the USA has 200+ years of gas left – gas (with CCS) could therefore be considered a “destination” fuel, not just a bridge.

Despite the disagreement within the room on smaller issues, there was an agreed consensus that changes must be made within the UNECE region. 80% of the energy in the region is fossil fuel based. Even under the 2℃ scenario, fossil fuels will still comprise 56% of the mix in 2050. To meet the 2℃ target, $200 billion/y will need to be invested in infrastructure. However, a delay on action could be even more expensive in terms of damage limitation costs.

The UNECE Committee on Sustainable Energy is now moving on to phase 2, which will include deep dive studies into the coal, gas, nuclear and hydrogen sectors. There will also be deep dive studies into regional approaches and challenges, starting with Caucasus, Central Asia, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and SE Europe.

Perhaps one of the most important work packages of the project is the “early warning system”, which aims to monitor the routes towards sustainable energy and to give an early indication of when progress is dropping behind what is required to comply with the 2℃ target.

There is a significant amount of work ahead, but the diversity and passion within the Committee is heartening.

Lesley Sloss attended the 28th Session of the Committee on Sustainable Energy in Geneva, Switzerland, 25-27 September 2019.