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Wind and solar's ‘variability problem’ is a myth: Irena boss

Energy storage and grid flexibility technologies are already solving intermittency, Francesco La Camera tells Recharge, adding that growing power demand in emerging markets could be a bigger issue

The notion that the variability of wind and solar is problematic is a “myth”, according to one of the world’s most important renewables advocates.

Francesco La Camera, director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), tells Recharge that there will soon be so many methods available to store renewable energy and help balance the grid that intermittency will not be an issue.

These include “ever more competitive” batteries; build-anywhere long-duration intermittent-energy storage (Baldies) technologies such as liquid-air and hot-rock thermal; district heating and cooling; electric-vehicle charging, green hydrogen, demand response, concentrating solar power with molten-salt storage, smart grids and interconnection. “These technologies will solve [variability]. They are already solving it,” the Italian explained on the sidelines of European Utility Week in Paris.

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He pointed to projects such as the Eland Solar & Storage Center near Los Angeles — 400MW of PV paired with 300MW/1,200MWh of batteries — which will supply combined solar and energy storage for $33/MWh from 2023. This is the same price as the average marginal cost of operating existing coal-fired and nuclear power plants, according to recent analysis from investment bank Lazard.

“The fact is that when we are all going in one direction [in the energy transition], it will be easy to find a technological solution — which are mostly already there. If 50 years ago, we were able to go to the Moon, you really think it’s now more difficult to make a grid flexible and stable?”

A bigger challenge to the energy transition, he said, is the fast-growing demand for power in emerging markets — an issue that Irena is paying particular attention to. In late September, it partnered with international organisations UN Development Programme, the Green Climate Fund and Sustainable Energy for All to launch the "Climate Investment Platform", which aims to mobilise $1trn of clean-energy investments in developing countries by 2025.

“We have to understand that we have different realities,” he explained. “One is Europe, which is the centre of this debate today. But we have areas where the energy demand is rapidly increasing like Southeast Asia, Africa, other parts of the world. So that is challenging because if we don't make the change [to clean energy] it will be impossible to stay in line with the Paris Agreement.”

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Although wind and solar are cheaper than conventional fossil-fuel power in many of these nations, “the market sometimes does not always respond immediately”, La Camera said.

“For example, there may not be the legal environment for risking the investments; there are still the lobbies that want to make the last penny from the mines from the extraction of carbon resources. So we really need, in certain parts of the world, complete support [and] the political willingness to get results, and we will work for that.

“We have been travelling around the world and… ministers are always mentioning they want to go for renewables… But you can feel the change everywhere. The fact is, unfortunately, that we have to do better and [work] faster.”

La Camera told Recharge that governments have many tools at their disposal to speed up the energy transition, including the elimination of fossil-fuel subsidies; carbon pricing; and so-called “command and control” policies, such as mandates, portfolio standards and phase-outs of emitting technologies, such as coal-fired power plants or petrol and diesel cars.

“What is important is that you clearly design the [energy transition] path for investors,” he says, suggesting that command and control policies may be more effective than carbon levies alone.

“The only thing that I always recommend is that these are things that need to be done progressively and slowly. So you have to identify a clear path and give time to consumers and producers to adapt if you don't want to have a backlash that may compromise your genuine efforts for a cleaner energy system,” he said, nodding to recent protests and riots triggered in France, Ecuador and Iran by sudden increases in the price of petrol and diesel.

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“So we have to accelerate while having clearly in mind that we need to have the people with us.”

Although he points out that the world needs to massively accelerate the renewables build-out and the electrification of heat, transport and industrial processes to hit climate targets, he seems fairly relaxed about the current speed of the energy transition.

“[Irena has] the numbers — we follow 90,000 investments in renewables, 9,000 auctions — we know where the market is going, so naturally it will happen.”

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