Reasons to be cheerful for the renewable energy sector

Steve Sawyer

Despite the continuing distressing news on the economy, the renewable energy sector has had some cheer of late, particularly in wind. At the New Energy Finance Summit on 5 March 2009, NEF's CEO Michael Liebrich discussed 7 positives. Most important for the wind industry: new financing sources, rising oil prices as the economy recovers and US $10 billion in stimulus packages from governments in the next 3 years, with a substantial part for renewable energy deployment.

In fact, in the last couple of weeks, funds have started to trickle out of the US Department of Energy's loan guarantee programme, with hopes that it will turn to a flood before the end of the second quarter.

The main purveyors of gloom at the summit were the somewhat sheepish and apologetic representatives of the banking sector. Bankers have supplanted lawyers as the key butt of jokes these days, and, while optimistic about the medium and long term prospects for the renewable energy sector, they are confronted by fundamental changes to their industry which they have not yet addressed. Are we in fact facing “the end of capitalism as we know it”, replaced largely by public finance and private equity?

Whatever the case, encouraging as the various stimulus packages are, they will in no way make up for the large gap in financing needed for the renewable energy industry to grow sufficiently to move us to a low-carbon economy and dramatically reduce our dependence on imported fuels.

The successful European Wind Energy Conference and Exhibition (EWEC 2009) in the middle of March, the largest wind exhibition in Europe this year, was also a largely optimistic affair, testament to the resilience and maturity of the wind industry. More than 7,500 people from 80 countries attended, with 390 companies exhibiting. The mood of exhibitors and conference attendees alike was that wind energy, while affected by the economic slump, will rebound quickly.

The theme of EWEC was a fresh start, with calls from various speakers, including politicians, MEPs and industry CEOs, to start work on the new green economy. “Green New Deal” rhetoric is at the centre of the economic stimulus packages both in China and the US, the two fastest growing wind energy markets. And the wind industry is stepping up, making the point that especially in this time of economic crisis, wind can play a major role in job creation and industrial development as well as providing security of supply and reducing carbon emissions.

Vestas CEO Ditlev Engel said it perfectly: “Human beings can't seem to read the writing on the wall until their backs are up against it – which is a sort of paradox…”. The wind industry is well placed to offer solutions to both the economic and climate crises that we are facing today. After several months of drought, the industry has been buoyed by a round of substantial new turbine orders in recent weeks, and positive policy developments such as the publication of South Africa's new feed-in tariff for wind and other renewable energy technologies.

During the Global Leaders' session at EWEC, guest speaker Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, underscored the need for urgent action, and noted that the wind industry had a huge role to play, especially in the next decade or so. This is an exciting development for the industry, to be publicly recognised as one of the key solutions by one of the most authoritative leaders on the climate change issue.

Missed opportunities

But not all of the news is good. There have been two serious missed opportunities lately: the G20 Summit in London and the Bonn climate change negotiations.

At the G20 meetings in London, world leaders lost an important opportunity to make new commitments on climate change. In the global plan for recovery and reform, the communiqué from the London Summit, there were just two lines about climate change and the need to (re)build a green economy, and these were tucked away at the very end of the document. Prior to the G20, there were signs that political leaders understood that a “green New Deal” can create jobs and spur innovation and that we can combat climate change, enhance energy security and pull the world out of a global recession at the same time. One wonders why there is such a fundamental disconnect between public rhetoric aimed at the press and the words agreed behind closed doors? Hopefully this is not a harbinger of things to come in the climate negotiations.

And in Bonn, at the first of what will now be 7 sets of negotiations during 2009 to hammer out a deal for the global climate to be agreed at the UN Climate Convention COP 15 in Copenhagen in December, the talks progressed at a snail's pace (though we may be insulting snails here). Notwithstanding the giant-sized clock in the main meeting hall, counting down the days until the COP 15 in Copenhagen, it's clear that many negotiators need new and clear instructions from capitals if they are to agree anything at all by the end of the year. A lack of political leadership, combined with stale rhetorical bickering about the relative obligations of developed and developing countries, prevented any substantial forward progress. At the next session in June, formal negotiating texts need to be laid on the table to fulfil legal obligations if countries are to arrive at an agreement in December.

US reengagement

The only highlight of the meeting was a clear signal of reengagement from the USA, as the State Department's new Special Envoy Todd Stern indicated that the Obama administration is ready to fully and constructively engage in the negotiations with the goal of achieving a new climate deal in Copenhagen in December 2009. He acknowledged that: “…the science is clear, and the threat is real.” He added: “We can transform to a low-carbon economy, we can stimulate global economic growth and put ourselves on a path of sustainable development for the 21st century.” He also acknowledged the US's historic responsibility as the largest polluter and said they were ready to make up for time lost under the Bush administration.

However, the early US proposal seems to pretend that the last 10 years didn't happen, rather than making up for lost time. The administration's stated aim is to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, basically achieving their obligations under the UN Convention 10 years too late. The newly introduced “Waxman Bill” in the US House of Representatives is only slightly better than that, bringing levels to somewhere around 5% below 1990 levels by 2020, with as yet unclear options to go a bit further using the carbon market. But the new US team's chief negotiator was only in fact confirmed a few days prior to the Bonn talks, so we'll only get a real sense of where they're headed when countries gather for the next session in June.

What does the ice bridge signal for COP 15?

The lack of commitment by governments to address the climate issue at the G20 and in Bonn signals problems ahead for COP 15, which begins in just under 8 months. It's a sobering thought that we are so woefully lacking in political leadership at a time when the scientific community, the economy and the general public are so clearly crying out for urgent action. And as the icing on the proverbial cake, just as the two important meetings in London and Bonn failed to set a positive tone for COP 15, far away in Antarctica, an ice bridge securing the Wilkins Ice Shelf shattered, the latest evidence of the deteriorating condition of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

We used to say: “The climate is changing faster than the positions of the negotiators.” Perhaps now we'll have to say that the climate negotiations are slower than the glaciers themselves – glaciers which are sliding into the sea and threatening hundreds of millions, and the very existence of a number of small island and coastal nations. This needs to change – and fast.

About the author

Steve Sawyer joined GWEC as the first secretary general on 2 April 2007. He has worked in the energy and environment field since 1978, with a particular focus on climate change and RE since 1988.

He spent 30 years working for Greenpeace, primarily on a wide range of energy issues. He was the ceo of both Greenpeace USA (1986 – 1988) and Greenpeace International (1988 – 1993), and he served as Head of Delegation to many Kyoto Protocol negotiations on climate change. He also lead delegations to the Johannesburg Earth Summit in 2002 and numerous sessions of the Commission on Sustainable Development. He is also a founding member of the REN21 Renewable Energy Policy Network and was a member of the Steering Committee of the Renewables 2004 ministerial conference in Bonn. He has also been an expert reviewer for the IPCC's Working Group III.


Share this article

More services


This article is featured in:
Energy efficiency  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Wind power