x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Gulf has good reason to back renewable energy

A green agenda not only frees oil for export, but will also extend the life of the region's most precious market commodity. Clean-energy technology is here to stay.

Despite the global slowdown and the uncertainties surrounding climate-change negotiations, you do not need to look far ahead to see a bright future for renewable energy. AFP
Despite the global slowdown and the uncertainties surrounding climate-change negotiations, you do not need to look far ahead to see a bright future for renewable energy. AFP

Has renewable energy already lost the battle with fossil fuels? No, clean energy technologies are here to stay.

Prior to the economic downturn, solar and wind-power technologies enjoyed double-digit market growth. With the recent financial hiccups, their market penetration has slowed. However, one would be naive to expect otherwise for such capital-intensive technologies.

Despite the global slowdown and the uncertainties surrounding climate-change negotiations, you do not need to look far ahead to see a bright future for renewable energy.

Consider this - a recent report by the European project EurObserv'ER affirms that the renewable-energy industry is growing in terms of employment, turnover and investment. Renewable-energy-based economic activity in Europe was estimated at a staggering US$166 billion (Dh609.76bn) last year (compared with about $155bn in 2010).

Even more important is that renewable energy has now started to compete with conventional power sources, without the need for government aid. Unsubsidised solar power is already competing with fossil fuels in India, Spain, Italy and Hawaii.

The wake-up call sparked by the Japanese nuclear disaster at Fukushima has also revived worldwide interest in renewable energy.

Plans to build nuclear plants in Japan and Germany, among other countries, have been scrapped and replaced with targets to increase the use of renewable energy in those countries. While the phasing out of nuclear power is being debated around the world, there are plans to remove nuclear facilities in several countries. This anti-nuclear movement has boosted demand for clean energy such as solar and wind power.

Even in the United States, renewables now generate more electricity than nuclear power. With the US presidential electionthis year, advocates of clean energy are closely watching the American political scene. This is no surprise.

The US, which still has the world's largest economy, is the world's biggest energy consumer and polluter.

Environmental policy is central to this November's US election as it was during the previous presidential election, especially after eight years of the "anti-green" George W Bush. Being a mainstream Republican candidate favouring laissez-faire policies, John McCain said little in his electoral campaign four years ago about government spending on alternative energy.

On the other hand, the soon-to-be president Barack Obama focused on issues close to the hearts of the American public such as energy security and job creation, both of which are related to the successful development of a renewable-energy industry. More recently, we heard about a few US solar manufacturing companies that went public after being hurt by the Chinese dumping of solar energy products on the US markets.

However, this should not hide the fact that a number of leading international companies have increased their manufacturing capacities in the US and that more manufacturing jobs have subsequently been created.

Many commentators attribute recent progress in the US to Mr Obama's green stimulus plan, with more than $70bn in direct spending and tax credits for clean energy.

There is great optimism that the next US president will keep supporting the green agenda and stimulate global demand for renewable energy.

Important though global events and market conditions are, one needs to acknowledge regional differences when considering the prospects for renewable-energy technologies in our region.

Affected to a certain extent by a blurry financial climate and regional political unrest, renewable-energy initiatives in the Gulf region have stumbled recently, but generous government support has swiftly put earlier plans back on track.

The Saudi government said it would invest over $140bn over the next 20 years on nuclear and renewable-energy projects. Key pro-renewables efforts are already being made by the International Renewable Energy Agency, the headquarters of which will soon be sited at the green Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

In January, the World Future Energy Summit was held in the emirate for the fifth year running. A few days before this event, the Government of Dubai unveiled a $3.2bn plan to develop the region's largest solar power plant.

Some sceptics say these green projects are all about rivalry between neighbouring countries and cities in boosting green credentials, and nothing to do with meeting growing domestic energy demand.

What seems to be overlooked is that the effect of recent cutbacks in green funding and subsidies in Spain and elsewhere, combined with the surge in oil prices, gives the oil-rich Gulf region a golden opportunity to become a global leader in renewable energy.

We need to start perceiving renewables as "complementary" as opposed to "alternative" sources of energy. After all, supporting the local renewable-energy agenda will not only help in freeing more oil for export, but will also stretch the life of the region's most precious export.

Yasser Al Saleh is a senior research fellow at Insead Innovation and Policy Initiative in Abu Dhabi