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Renewables and energy efficiency: a dynamic duo

Maximising the synergy between the two crucial objectives can drastically reduce energy-related carbon emissions as a new working paper from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) highlights.

At present, Earth’s atmosphere has 407 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide (CO2). According to NASA, it is 650 000 years since atmospheric CO2 concentrations were this high. Furthermore, the impacts of the high concentration of this climate-changing greenhouse gas (GHG) in the atmosphere are being felt globally.

Dolf Gielen, Director of IRENA’s Innovation and Technology Centre here seen in a panel discussion during EUBCE 2016. Dolf Gielen, Director of IRENA’s Innovation and Technology Centre here seen in a panel discussion during EUBCE 2016.

Rethinking our energy sector is the key to addressing carbon emissions. Almost every country in the world has made a commitment to reduce their carbon emissions through the Paris Agreement, but exactly how varies, said Dolf Gielen, Director of IRENA’s Innovation and Technology Centre.

The energy sector makes up a large part of practically every country’s emissions. In all, energy-related emissions account for two-thirds of today’s global greenhouse gas emissions. For the world to avoid catastrophic climate change, countries need to pursue energy decarbonisation.

We’ve found that renewables and energy efficiency can work together to provide over 90 percent of the mitigation needed in the energy system by 2050. Energy decarbonisation is vital to put the world on a pathway to fulfilling the Paris Agreement, said Gielen.

An important synergy

Renewable energy and energy efficiency work in synergy and when pursued together, they can bring faster reduction in energy intensity and lower energy costs, according to a newly released working paper from IRENA. Crucially, improved efficiency reduces total energy demand, allowing the share of renewables in the energy mix to grow faster.

Entitled “Synergies between renewable energy and energy efficiency“, the paper looks at how this synergy affects the energy system and technology cost, and the subsequent effects on air pollution and the avoidance of adverse health effects caused by pollutants.

Real environmental and social benefits can be gained by enhancing the synergy between renewables and energy efficiency. Reduced air pollution — a real killer — is one. Another recent study showed that, for example, almost 13 000 lives in the United States have been saved thanks to the deployment of more solar and wind energy.

Looking in detail at China, Germany, India, Japan and the United States, we examine what policies they can implement to boost renewable and energy efficient development, Gielen explained.

IRENA’s paper focuses on opportunities for these countries — the world’s five largest energy users — to boost renewables and efficiency.

Benefits for all

Global energy-related CO2 emissions could be reduced 70 percent by 2050, IRENA finds. Renewables can account for about half of those reductions, with another 45 percent coming from increased energy efficiency and electrification.

Primary CO2 emissions reduction potential by technology in the Reference Case and REmap, 2015-2050. Note CO2 emissions include energy-related emissions (fossil fuel, waste, gas flaring) and process emissions from industry. If only fossil fuel emissions were displayed in this figure, CO2 emissions in 2050 would be at 42 Gt and 10 Gt per year in the Reference Case and REmap, respectively (graphic courtesy IRENA).

But maximising such synergies requires a greater understanding of the potential that exists at the country, sector and technology levels. IRENA’s study calls for a system-wide perspective that takes into account the interlinkages between technologies and sectors.

All countries can benefit from the important synergies between renewable energy and energy efficiency. Specific technologies enable energy efficiency and renewable energy in both the power and end-use sectors. On the end-use side, the electrification of services like passenger transport and cooking heat results in higher efficiency, allowing greater use of renewable power. On the supply side, in turn, the switch to renewable power tends to reduce primary energy demand.

Power generation from many types of renewables are 100 percent efficient in international energy statistics, while fossil power plants achieve only 25–85 percent efficiency. Though the cost-competitiveness of technologies varies by country, the combined deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies always results in overall savings.

IRENA’s working paper builds upon “Perspectives for the Energy Transition: Investment Needs for a Low-Carbon Energy System“, a joint study by IRENA and the International Energy Agency (IEA) for the G20.

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