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World renewables agency calls for major change

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) wants to help nations say goodbye to fossil fuels. Its Deputy Director-General told DW the technology for a fossil fuel phase-out exists, but a full switch won't be easy.

A line of wind turbines in Egypt line the horizon.

Nordafrika Ägypten Windpark

Deutsche Welle: Frank Wouters, IRENA was founded in 2009 as an international organization dedicated to advancing renewable energies around the world. What are IRENA's tasks?

Frank Wouters: We basically have three functions. We are the worldwide voice for renewables. Up until now, there was no such organization. Also, we are the site where all the information comes together. And, we help member states implement their goals in renewable energy.

What shape does this support take concretely?

We've developed some very helpful aids. For example, we have a platform on the internet where individual countries' potential for solar and wind energy can be calculated. This tool has been very successful and has let countries develop their strategies much more precisely.

Frank Wouters of IRENA (Photo: Evert Aberts)

Wouters says winning over decision makers isn't easy

We have also developed a test that we carry out together with the countries called "Renewable Energy Assessments". With this, countries themselves can very quickly determine where they stand and what they have to do to make progress.

What are the future challenges?

In the last few years, we have seen very rapid development of renewable energies. And renewable energies are of course a very important economic sector, with more than $260 billion (200 billion euros) in turnover per year.

The challenge is that the international community is not responding to climate change with deeds. Thus, the urgency of the matter is not appreciated and at the bottom line, too little is done. The true potential of renewable energies can easily be tapped if the right decisions are made relatively quickly. It's about big investments in infrastructure that have to be made now, so it's not expensive later.

How big will the renewable energy share be by 2030 if every sector - including electricity, heating, industry and transportation - is taken into account?

Right now at IRENA, we are working on a roadmap supporting the United Nations' objectives. The United Nations' goal is to double the share of renewable energy by 2030. That would be between 30 and 36 percent worldwide. That's certainly an ambitious goal, and we have to do a lot more right now to reach it. But this goal stands a chance of subduing climate change and keeping it down to just a two-degree increase in global temperature.

Implementing this goal is possible and most scenarios also show it makes economic sense too, since you pay less for renewables. The willingness for this goal is there, but concrete implementation is lacking.

DW graphic by Olof Pock

Global temperatures are on track to rise by six degrees Celsius in the coming years, but IRENA says renewables could slow the trend

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) has gone through scenarios showing it is possible to cover up to about 85 percent of the world's energy needs through renewable energy sources, in all sectors, by 2050. Do you consider that achievable?

This is a very elaborate scenario. And when you take a good look at it, you see the economic advantages. It's not just about the climate. Even without taking into consideration those effects, this scenario very concretely shows the economic advantages. The costs we currently pay for fossil fuels will sharply increase if we don't carry out an energy transition.

The achievability of such a scenario depends, of course, on whether we are currently ready to do something relatively quickly. So, for instance, every investment in a fossil fuel plant hinders investments in a promising infrastructure.

Is there a problem with achievability - are there conflicts there?

Right now there are of course large interest groups with a lot of money. They also have the ability to influence politicians, as well as public opinion. Right now, of course, fossil fuel providers do a lot of advertising, which is partially targeted against renewables.

Photo illustration of solar panel on a roof(Photo: Carsten Behler / photon-pictures.com)

Solar energy has gotten much cheaper to make just this year

A switch to renewable energies means, logically, that most of the world's fossil fuels will remain in the Earth. That will naturally meet with resistance from the fossil fuel economy.

That is a conflict indeed. Businesses that do not react and switch over will lose. That is a huge factor right now. But the economic advantages are relatively obvious. That's why we need strong, ongoing political guidance in completely modernizing our infrastructure.

You say that the economic advantages are clear. On the other side you hear the claim that renewables are expensive. So what's right?

In recent years, solar energy and wind power above all have undergone massive developments. These technologies have shown they are becoming more competitive. Solar energy, for instance, has become 60 percent less expensive in the last two years and can already prove itself competitive in many scenarios. The development isn't over yet. As far as we can see, renewables will be able to compete without financial support in more and more situations.

Photo illustration of power lines (Photo: Bilderbox)

Entrenched interets could yet derail efforts to phase fossil fuels out

The problem is that this dynamic is taking place so fast, it is hard to communicate. For example, when a politician takes on the topic, he has a certain point of view. And when the energy dynamic dramatically changes within one or two years, which we're seeing right now, it is hard to change this point of view. This is a challenge. That's why it's also important for us as an international organization to have a very short line to our decision makers so they can understand this dynamic.

Mr. Wouters, you live in the United Arab Emirates and IRENA is based in the capital Abu Dhabi. The UAE has some of the biggest oil reserves in the world. What do people in the region think of renewable energy and phasing out the fossil fuel economy?

A very exciting discussion is happening here right now. We see it not only in Abu Dhabi, but also in the other Gulf states. People are increasingly aware that renewables are an interesting industry, both for energy production here and for exporting later. Of course, it's very exciting.

We're seeing rethinking underway in Saudi Arabia, too. People are increasingly realizing that the current economic path will make no sense in the near future. This regional rethinking is truly exciting, since it also signals big things. That's why it's also a very good symbol for us to be here. When the very people who have oil realize that there already are, and will continue to be, better alternatives, that is very, very important.

Frank Wouters is Deputy Director-General of IRENA. Since the agency was founded in Bonn, Germany in 2009, 104 countries along with the European Union have joined, while another 55 have applied for membership.