Renewables could generate 100 per cent of the UAE’s power needs within 50 years, if the investment and will is there, according to the outgoing head of the International Renewable Energy Agency.
Adnan Amin, director general of the Abu Dhabi organisation, made the prediction in a wide-ranging interview with The National as the 60-year-old prepares to leave the capital after serving two terms.
He also warned of the existential threat posed by climate change, saying the GCC must wean itself off oil, although he cautioned that could lead to job losses in the fossil fuel industry.
When Mr Amin took office in 2011, it was a different world. Weeks into the job, the unfolding Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan provoked many countries into reassessing their energy choices, while the Irena headquarters at Masdar City wasn't even built.
Today, renewables supply about 25 per cent of the world’s electricity and over the past seven years, 70 per cent of new power capacity across the globe has come from green sources. But these numbers are much lower in sectors such as cooling and transport, which account for far more energy use.
But the road ahead is hard. The most recent figures show the UAE generates just 2 per cent of its electricity needs through renewables. Most of this comes from solar with wind and tidal not suited to the Gulf. Other areas such as desalination and cooling require much more energy and are fed by fossil fuels. The country generates about 98 per cent of its electricity through gas-powered plants.
But by 2050, the UAE wants 44 per cent of power generation to come from clean energy; 38 per cent from gas, 12 per cent from clean coal and 6 per cent from nuclear. Mr Amin said grid interconnection, rooftop installations and smart metering will help and it is achievable.
“We are beginning to see it in Dubai already ... and it is matter of time before that comes to Abu Dhabi.” But can the GCC really wean itself off fossil fuels? “It has to change,” he said. “This is very well recognised by the leadership.
The Kenyan has spent the best part of 25 years at the heart of the global conversation on renewables. Irena, the international community’s response to building sustainable energy, was established in 2009 and now 170 countries have signed up.
He moves easily from the mundane minutiae of framework documents, capacity building and workshops to more high-profile encounters such as meeting Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi. It was Mr El Sisi who warned him of the threat of political instability if jobs were not found for millions of young Egyptians.
But environmental motivations are driving the switch to renewables just as much as the economy. The UN has warned that the world faces temperature increases of more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in a decade bringing floods, extreme heat and endangering the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
“Energy use accounts for two thirds of emissions and decarbonising energy is possibly the quickest way … to reach the goals of the Paris agreement,” he said, referring to the global agreement that seeks to keep levels below 2°C. “This is an existential issue.”
Mr Amin says the desire for change is being led by young people. But he also cautioned against moving too fast. There are trillions of dollars and millions of jobs invested in the conventional energy industry. ""If we start to move very quickly, there is the spectre of huge unemployment," he said. Mr Amin adds that his children do not understand what a landline phone is and the same swift transformation will take place in renewable energy.
“But [you] have to do it in a way that avoids major social and economic disruption,” he adds.
Mr Amin also cautions against looking for a silver bullet. Take batteries. Battery prices have come down by 60 per cent in the past decade and huge amounts of research is pouring into improving efficiency and avoiding the use of rare minerals. But he says a mix of energy sources is most likely.
There is one thing on which he is clear. The internal combustion engine has had its day.
“I know a lot of petrolheads are addicted to revving their cars, but the electric vehicle at a similar price is infinitely superior.” The cost is much lower and they don’t need as much servicing.
“Look at the United States – Tesla cannot meet demand for its Model 3. And that’s only one manufacturer.”
For now, Mr Amin will enjoy some well-deserved time off before taking up a fellowship at Harvard. Director generals are only allowed two terms.
Is he tired of renewables? On the contrary, he is already plotting the next chapter. “It will be about energy transition and how do we create a kind of momentum around it at a political level,” he says.