The world’s incredible decrease in energy consumption caused by COVID-19, and the unprecedented collapse of the oil and gas markets has some arguing that 2019 was the peak for oil and clean energy will dominate in the years ahead.
This and more was unpacked during a renewable energy webinar hosted by the African Energy Chamber and Africa Oil & Power on Thursday. Under the theme ‘Is now the time for renewables?’ the webinar gathered high-level speakers including Nelisiwe Magubane, Chairperson, Matleng Energy Solutions; Suzanne Jaworowski, Senior Advisor, Policy & Communications, Office of Nuclear Energy, U.S. Department of Energy; Massaer Cisse, General Manager, Lekela Power Senegal and Dr Clinton Carter-Brown, Head of the Energy Centre, South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.
The session highlighted the impact of COVID-19 on global renewable energy development discussions. According to Massaer Cissé: “COVID-19 has sparked a new discussion on the importance of renewables and we can expect renewable energy to be central topic in all conversations to come,"
"According to the International Energy Agency, 72% of all installed power capacity globally in 2019 originated from renewable energy, and it expects it to grow in 2020, despite the pandemic. COVID-19 is by definition a shock but it’s a temporary event. The long-term trends preexisting prior to the pandemic remain true today.
Renewable energies are now very competitive and are able to function without subsidies. Africa’s impact is relatively small on the global scale for global warming and climate change; however, we are primarily impacted. Therefore, Africa has a responsibility, beyond economic considerations, to contribute to finding solutions. I believe the renewable energy outlook remains very positive.”
Nelisiwe Magubane, from Matleng Energy Solutions, expressed concerns around the pandemic encouraging countries to halt the race to renewables and focus on indigenous assets, including fossil fuels: “We have seen countries having more nationalistic agendas in order to protect their assets and revitalize their economies, thus translating to the use of more indigenous resources.
Africa is well-endowed with renewable energy resources and it has become very competitive compared to other energy sources. However, it can’t meet peak demand, depending on the country. Other energy sources are needed to complement renewables, and the overall goal is to lower emissions, rather than aim right now to bring it down to zero. We need to have a pragmatic approach to deploy an energy mix benefitting the country and the environment.
Suzanne Jaworowski, from the U.S. Office of Nuclear Energy underlined the importance of market volatility and reliability issues linked to the energy sector globally, and how the pandemic has highlighted those two challenges as central to a sustainable energy sector.
As an advocate for the development of nuclear energy, Suzanne highlighted technology advancements which make nuclear a viable option for African countries in terms of cost as well as security: “Nuclear is a serious option to be considered in terms of energy transition. Smaller modular reactor designs which will come online in the next few years are economically competitive with combined cycle natural gas plants. Of course, each country must decide what is best, but major nuclear technology advancements make it worthy of taking it into account. Nuclear is a lot more accessible cost wise making it a viable option.”
The discussion also touched on natural gas as a prime fuel for energy transition. As an energy specialist in South Africa, Dr Clinton Carter-Brown commented: “Ninety percent of South Africa’s electricity runs on coal. We have one of the highest numbers of emissions per capita across the globe. The shift from coal to renewable is particularly key in our country, economically and in regard to the energy transition. Natural gas will have a major role play in the transition, provided we are able to build the appropriate processing and transport infrastructure. The energy transition will create immense employment opportunities and is a major challenge in the years coming up.”
Finally, the discussion touched on localization and local content. Although it is hot topic in the oil and gas space, local capacity development is equally, if not more, important in the renewable energy sector as it is home to major technology innovations.
Massaer Cissé used the telecommunications revolution as an example to show that the energy sector is on the verge of its own revolution: “The energy sector is following the path of telecommunications. When mobile telecommunications came online, previously isolated communities suddenly could access mobile solutions. In the energy sector, mini solar kits, portable battery storage solutions, small wind power plants among others, are setting the energy on the path of revolution, in which renewables are a key component. Nuclear also has a major role to play because the main driver of the energy revolution is technological. “
Nelisiwe Magubane brought up the issue of intellectual property as a key component of the regulatory frameworks to be designed by governments: “Renewable energy is an opportunity for African countries to create proprietary technology, be strict about intellectual property and drive technological innovation and energy independence.”
Final words from Massaer Cisse underlined that the renewable energy revolution has not been hindered by COVID-19. “We all agree that the current situation is not sustainable. Energy sources don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Oil, nuclear, natural gas, coal have the biggest role to play. Renewables is here to stay and grow.”