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Securing our energy future

Energy security is inextricably linked to renewables

by Jamal Saghir

Worldwide electricity consumption is estimated to grow from  around 20,000 terawatt hours (TWh) today to 35,000 TWh in 2030, putting energy security at the forefront of future planning. While in the past, energy security was largely focused on oil supply, and natural gas supplies were not globally integrated, today a global market in natural gas is linking countries, continents, and energy prices in unprecedented ways—fostering the need for a cooperative approach.

Securing the world’s energy future also depends on moving past traditional energy concepts, sources, and approaches. By 2040, 60 percent of the new production capacities are expected to come from renewable sources. Environmental sustainability is closely bound with future energy development in emerging and developing countries in particular, and renewable energy sources and storage have become critical for development and prosperity.

Energy security and development

The interdependence between energy-producing and energy-consuming countries is increasing due to the shift in the geographical sources of oil and gas supplies expected over the next several decades. More than ever, it is in the world’s common interest to secure a sustainable supply of energy. Enhancing energy security will require a far-sighted and cooperative approach internationally, one that builds on the value of interdependence.

This is especially true for developing countries, which are expected to account for more than two-thirds of the growth in energy consumption in the coming years. For these countries, energy security is also key to development. Economic activity and the economic growth necessary for job creation and raising incomes depend on adequate, affordable, and reliable supplies of energy.

The impacts of current unreliable energy supplies severely constrain businesses and hurt their competitiveness. In Sub-Saharan African countries, for example, production losses caused by power outages reach between 6 and 8 percent of sales. It should not come as a surprise that many companies in Sub-Saharan countries use their own generators, despite the fact that the cost of privately supplied power is two to three times higher than energy from public grids. As a consequence of unreliable grid supply, the percentage of companies with their own generators is very high in developing countries overall, as seen here in Lebanon.

Unreliable energy supplies in developing countries also come with an individual cost—some people can spend up to a quarter of their income on an energy supply which does not meet their needs.

Securing the energy future of developing countries is therefore vital to their future development and the needs of their citizens. One way in which to do this is to shift the focus of energy supplies to renewable or green energy sources.

The future is green

Here in Lebanon, there have been some attempts to foster the use of renewables as an alternative to conventional oil-based energy. One particular success is the use of solar water heaters, which have and continue to gain considerable interest in many parts of Lebanon.

By the end of 2018, it is expected that small-sized photovoltaic initiatives will have been implemented across the country, while a wind farm project in Akkar that would generate 200 megawatts has also been tendered, and another 200 megawatts of solar generation projects are planned. But overall generation from renewables is still a very small percentage of total energy sources in Lebanon (around 5 percent).

There is still much work to be done, compounded by the fact that what little success has been achieved so far is now at risk due to the potential of offshore oil and gas in Lebanon. The high levels of speculation surrounding these prospective hydrocarbon resources have inflated expectations of an oil and gas solution to Lebanon’s energy woes, putting the urgency of renewable energy development at risk.

It is true that extracting petroleum could be a potential solution to the electricity problem in Lebanon. However, this should not stop renewable energy development or impede Lebanon’s target of deriving 12 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020. In fact, the country should be aiming to double the percentage of renewables beyond this low goal.

Standing in the way of this, however, is the possibility of discovering oil and gas that could supply local power plants at a far lower cost compared to current prices paid by the government. Over-reliance on this outcome could create a tendency to see renewables as a secondary source of energy. If that occurs then there is little hope of Lebanon installing renewables past its near-term target. Even worse, it could stunt growth in the renewables sector for generations to come.

The stakes here are high. By reducing Lebanon’s reliance on conventional oil-based energy and accelerating a switch to renewables we would achieve a cleaner environment and a healthier country to live in, especially in places where private generators are running almost 24 hours per day and emitting harmful greenhouse gases. Securing our future energy supply requires bold action supporting the implementation of transformational renewable and storage power projects. Energy storage facilitates access to clean energy and acts as a buffer to stabilize the intermittency of renewable energies. It is an essential tool for enabling the effective integration of renewable energy and unlocking the benefits of a clean, renewable, and resilient energy supply.

This is as true for Lebanon as it is for developing countries the world over. The bottom line is clear—energy insecurity constrains economic growth and poverty reduction, and has environmental impacts that are increasingly detrimental to people’s health and well-being.

The big question is whether it is possible to expand supplies and access to energy in ways that enable the needs of the present to be met without compromising those of future generations.

The answer cannot lie in efforts to restrict energy consumption alone. We need to find ways to supply homes, farms, and factories with the energy they need, but with a smaller environmental footprint and much higher energy efficiency. Increasing energy supply and use, and decreasing the environmental footprint, therefore present a double challenge. If that challenge can be successfully met, the result will be a double dividend: an improved clean energy supply and an improved atmospheric environment that should, in the long term, lead to a more stable climate.

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Jamal Saghir

Jamal Saghir is the professor of practice at the Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University, an affiliated scholar at the Issam Fares Institute, Beirut, and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C. All views expressed in this article are his own.

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