31 May 2018

An irreversible trend: Local Renewables explores the future of clean energy

One of the most common criticisms of renewable energies is that their “lack of reliability” means that, at best, they can act as a supplement - a green addition to the real power generated by fossil fuels and nuclear energy. This talking point, often used by opponents of renewables, states that as wind cannot be summoned on command and as sunlight is not available 24 hours a day, coal, oil, and nuclear fission are needed to provide stable energy in an always-on society. This type of thinking is quickly refuted by Holger Robrecht, Deputy Regional Director with ICLEI Europe.

“By and large, it’s a false argument,” he says.

“The question is: how serious are we about driving a renewable energy strategy? If we get very serious, and we have proper energy generation and energy distribution systems in place, there is nothing stopping us from switching very quickly to renewable energy. We know that in a country like Germany, so much renewable energy is produced that it is even exported to other countries.”

Holger Robrecht has been working on the topic of energy for many years within ICLEI Europe, so is used to dealing with the usual arguments against the transition to clean energy. "We have come quite a long way with storage technologies already, and we have come a long way in terms of smart infrastructure. We know enough to know that it works, the question is how serious we are about switching.”

Robrecht will be heavily involved in the upcoming Local Renewables event, the latest edition of the long-running conference series.

“The objectives of the first Local Renewables conference in 2007 were to facilitate exchange on renewable energy activities and projects and to promote local renewables as a way to contribute to energy security. We also aimed to help municipalities and cities see sustainable energy as a contribution towards sustainable urban development – many of these aims remain unchanged to this day!”

While it may seem as though having the same core objectives after 11 years means that little progress has been made in the field, Robrecht says that this would be a misinterpretation:

“The task [of transitioning to renewables] is a big one! We notice that in Europe we are still chasing the targets for renewable energy – we will not meet the EU2020 targets for renewables, for example. Local Renewables aims to foster the uptake of renewable energy strategies in cities and regions, which is obviously as important and relevant as it was back then. But it is an enormous task.”

“Each edition looks into different aspects in terms of the application of local renewables, of the techniques and technologies and the contextualising governance and planning frameworks needed. In 11 years, a number of supporting technologies and experiences have emerged, like the idea of Smart Cities, which wasn’t around in 2007. The potential of smart infrastructure to drive a strong and ambitious renewable energy agenda is something that we could not explore back then. These days we can explore it in detail.”

The 2018 conference will be run under the theme of “Urban Transformation to a Circular economy”, and will take place in both Freiburg (Germany) and Basel (Switzerland). The circular economy is generally understood in terms of closing material loops – reusing items rather than one-off use. But how does this relate to energy?

"That’s the interesting part from my point of view. The answer is not simple or easy – this is exactly why Local Renewables is focusing on the circular economy this year,” says Robrecht. “One aspect is obviously most of the material flows can only circulate with the use of energy – energy as a supporting element in it. We can also potentially learn from the use of renewable energy in terms of material cycles.”

“The third element is a very interesting one. If we look at the implementation of strong renewable energy strategies, we see that, yes, they do generate renewable energy, but oftentimes they are not using renewable material. If we look at wind turbines, they are made from tonnes of rare metals - obviously in a non-renewable way! So, we are exploiting material to drive renewable energy strategies. This is an element of renewable energy strategies that we need to look into in terms of how far we can be more serious about the renewable part of renewable energy.”

In recent years, Local Renewables has expanded its participants to include international delegations. This year will see attendees from both Japan and India. For Mr Robrecht, one of the best parts of Local Renewables is the freedom and space to discuss a wide-range of issues related to renewable energy.

“I think Local Renewables is always at the forefront of topical discussions around renewable energies. This is what people appreciate. It’s a discussion of topics that often come to [widespread] implementation later, so we hear first from the frontrunners on their experience. It’s based on the request of topics to be discussed, to help cities and regions move to – in the best case – 100 percent renewable energy strategies. We look into governance, but also technical and technology issues. So, it’s an intertwined perspective.”

When asked what the future holds for the Local Renewables series, Holger is reflective. “I would hope that in ten years’ time we don’t have to have the Local Renewables conference anymore, because that would be the biggest success,” he says.

“Honestly though, I doubt that will be the case. However, renewable energy will increase, and we will have, for sure, a significant jump in the amount of renewable energy produced within the next ten years.”

“This trend [towards renewables] is not reversible.”

For more information and to register for the Local Renewables conference, click here.