Sponge Cities: What is it all about?

The 34 hectares urban storm water park in the city of Harbin in northern China is an example of successful Sponge City intervention. The storm water park provides multiple ecosystems services: it collects, cleanses and stores storm water and lets it infiltrate it into the aquifers. At the same time it protects and recovers the native natural habitats and provides an aesthetically appealing public space for recreational use.


Sponge City. Yet another term on the growing list next to regenerative, sustainable, green, eco, resilient, low-impact, future proofing, zero-carbon, and the list goes on.

Strange as it may sound, this term has actually gained a huge amount of support, especially in China. In fact, the Chinese government has already chosen 16 pilot cities and allocated to each of them between 400 and 600 million yuan for the implementation of innovative water management strategies that would gradually transform these cities into “Sponge Cities”.

What are the key issues the Sponge City wants to solve?

Before explaining in more detail what a Sponge City actually is, it is important to appreciate the main issues that the Sponge City intends to tackle. These are mainly four:

  • Less water available in urban and peri-urban areas. First of all, a key question we need to answer to explain this issue is: Where do we get the water that comes out of our taps? Many times it is actually coming from aquifers underneath our feet. As it rain, water is absorbed by the ground and naturally filtered by the soil. We can then extract this water by drilling wells into the ground and pumping water out of it. The water is then collected and treated before is distributed across the city and can reach every tap in each of our houses and offices. The problem is that extensive urbanization and urban sprawling led to the formation of thousands of square kilometres of impermeable areas made up of impervious roads, pavements, roofs and parking lots that do not allow water to be absorbed into the ground but that simply collect the rainwater through the urban drainage infrastructure and channel it into rivers, lakes or into the sea. This traditional type of design led to the creation of cities which are increasingly impermeable and have an increasingly greater impact on the natural water cycle. In practise this means that since less rain water is allowed to filter through the urban soil, less water is available to be extracted from aquifers in urban and peri-urban areas.
  • Polluted water discharged into rivers or the sea. Another key issues is related to the fact that rain water and wastewater (namely water from our sinks and toilets) is collected by one single drainage system. This drainage system (imagine one big pipe) collects all the rain water (when it rains) and the wastewater from our houses and directs it to a wastewater treatment plant where it gets treated before it is discharged again into rivers or the sea. When it rains, many times the wastewater treatment plant cannot accommodate all the water that the drainage systems carries. Therefore much of the rain water mixed with the wastewater is discharged untreated into rivers. The more impermeable the city is, the more water will be mixed with wastewater and will not be able to be treated but discharged directly into rivers.  This increases the level of pollution of local water bodies.
  • Degradation of urban ecosystems and green areas due to sprawling. This led to a considerable loss of urban biodiversity, a drop in available green areas for natural ground filtration of storm water, a decrease in CO2 capture by plants, fewer spaces for natural cooling through urban green microclimates and generally less liveable, healthy, comfortable and attractive public spaces.
  • Increase in the intensity and frequency of urban flooding particularly considering predicted increase in extreme weather events due to climate change. As the absorbing capacity of the urban surface is decreased, storm flooding risk is increased. Flooding leads to increased groundwater pollution and has considerable impact in terms of damage to properties and health related issues.

What is a Sponge City?

The Sponge City indicates a particular type of city that does not act like an impermeable system not allowing any water to filter through the ground, but, more like a sponge, actually absorbs the rain water, which is then naturally filtered by the soil and allowed to reach into the urban aquifers. This allows for the extraction of water from the ground through urban or peri-urban wells. This water can be easily treated and used for the city water supply.

What does a Sponge City need in practise? 

A sponge cities needs to be abundant with spaces that allow water to seep through them. Instead of only impermeable concrete and asphalt, the city needs more:

  • Contiguous open green spaces, interconnected waterways, channels and ponds across neighbourhoods that can naturally detain and filter water as well as foster urban ecosystems, boost bio-diversity and create cultural and recreational opportunities.
  • Green roofs that can retain rainwater and naturally filters it before it is recycled or released into the ground.
  • Porous design interventions across the city, including construction of bio-swales and bio-retention systems to detain run-off and allow for groundwater infiltration; porous roads and pavements that can safely accommodate car and pedestrian traffic while allowing water to be absorbed, permeate and recharge groundwater; drainage systems that allow trickling of water into the ground or that direct storm water run-off into green spaces for natural absorption
  • Water savings and recycling, including extending water recycling particularly of grey water at the building block level, incentivizing consumers to save water through increased tariffs for increase in consumption, raising awareness campaigns, and improved smart monitoring systems to identify leakages and inefficient use of water.

What are the benefits of a Sponge City? 

There is wide range of benefits associated with the implementation of sponge cities. These include:

  • More clean water for the city. Replenished groundwater and thus greater accessibility to water resources for cities. This also entails greater water self-sufficiency which allows cities to increasingly rely on water sources from within their boundaries
  • Cleaner groundwater due to the increase volume of naturally filtered storm water. This means lower environmental and health costs due to considerable decrease in water pollution
  • Reduction in flood risk as the city offers more permeable spaces for the natural retention and percolation of water. This leads to better resilience and in particular greater ability to deal with higher flood risks resulting from climate change
  • Lower burdens on drainage systems, water treatment plant, artificial channels and natural streams. This also entails lower costs for drainage and treatment infrastructure
  • Greener, healthier, more enjoyable urban spaces. Greener urban spaces improve quality of life, create more pleasant landscape aesthetics and recreational areas that are enjoyable and attract people. This also means increase in land value due to aesthetically more pleasing, cleaner and healthier open spaces close to private properties
  • Enriched biodiversity around green open spaces, wetlands, urban gardens and green rooftops

The new DNA of future energy markets

Delegates from more than 130 countries and world’s leading renewable energy experts meet for the next three days to discuss the global energy transition. The annual Assembly of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has become one of the most important gathering. In fact, the way energy is produced, distributed and consumed in our societies is undergoing fundamental changes. With the majority of energy investments already going into renewable energy, we are doing more than substituting oil, gas, coal and nuclear with free energy from the wind and the sun. We are in fact building an entirely new global energy sector with a completely different DNA.

How does this new DNA of future energy markets look like?

The paradigm shift we are observing is the transition from a vertical to a horizontal structure – from a centralized, hierarchical, supplier-centric energy infrastructure to decentralized, customer-centric and participatory energy models. Most of the existing energy markets are characterized by complex centralized infrastructures, a vertical supply chain, and dominated by few big utilities, whereas future energy markets will be decentralized, with a horizontal supply chain and where benefits are widely distributed among new actors and stakeholders, including individual citizens and small businesses.

An example of this can be found in the Energiewende in Germany: More than one third of the electricity consumption is coming from renewable sources with onshore wind (12%) and solar PV (6%) being the major contributors. If one looks at who owns, finances and runs these new Gigawatts of capacity, one finds that it is primarily citizens, energy cooperatives, farmers and small and medium sized companies that are driving the energy transition. In 2012, 47% of the installed capacity was in the hands of communities and individuals. Only 12% was invested by the conventional energy utilities. And as a German studyrevealed, projects that were partially or fully owned by local investors generated some 5.4 billion € and created a total of about 100,000 jobs in 2012 in both the construction sector and operation.

Why is it cheaper?

Firstly, energy markets based on renewable sources are cheaper because we build an infrastructure that is paid for by upfront investments and whose fuel is free with small running costs. The DNA of future energy markets is therefore about energy services rather than the supply of fuels and consumption. As the fuel is free, costs for energy generation technologies can be considered as an investment not a running cost. While the conventional energy business model is based on scarcity, depletion, command-and-control monopolies, fossil resource will never be able to compete with renewables, even with a historically low oil price.

This is one of the reasons why the national target of 100% electricity access in rural Bangladesh was implemented almost exclusively with the use of solar home systems (SHS). Solar PV had clear economic advantages compared to conventional sources including diesel. Today, about 18 million people living in rural areas have electricity thanks to more than 3.5 million solar home systems.

Secondly, energy markets based on renewable sources are cheaper because prices for solar and wind technologies drop when demand rises. As we could see over the past years, the learning curve of the technologies pushes costs down dramatically. On the contrary, current business models for oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy are based on decreasing returns as production increases which can be well observed with the low oil price at the moment. When demand increases, deposits are being extracted and prices increase.

Who are the architects of a future energy market?

Across the world, often state-owned utilities tend to monopolize the full value chain from drilling, extraction to distribution. Historically, they have made their profits by ensuring that the market price for energy is constantly high, so that it pays off the high capital investments needed for drilling, extraction and distribution. In this energy model, the price per kWh therefore depends on the project and the technology used and marginal costs are mainly determined by the cost of fuel. The plunging oil price is therefore an economic disaster for the whole sector.

This changes fundamentally with renewable sources. The clearing price of competitive electricity in wholesale markets is lower when solar and wind power plants are included. As utilities are still primarily operators of fossil fuel plants, they are losing market shares and therefore revenues. While the majority of utilities are still in the denial phase, there are some examples that show that the “clean disruption” has also influences in this sector (Tony Seba, 2014). For example, in December 2014 the German utility EON decided to spin off its fossil fuel power plants into a separate company and concentrate on renewable generation, distribution network and provide customers with new solutions and services. CEO Johannes Teyssen explained, “EON’s existing broad business model can no longer properly address these new challenges.” In the press conference, Teyssen explicitly expounded on how renewable energy does not only “revolutionize the electricity production but actually changes the role of the consumer.” One year later, in December 2015, RWE follows.

The architects of this new modular, distributed, bottom-up, open, knowledge based, consumer centric energy system will therefore rather be Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and innovators, who understand the power of digitalization and connectivity and can provide intelligent, smart and innovative solutions.

Will fossil fuel and nuclear power soon be a stranded asset?

In 2015, there were plenty of signals that the world has embarked on transforming its energy sectors sooner than many had expected. Just to mention a few: the G7 mandate for a full decarbonisation in this century, the Paris agreement and the declaration by 1000 mayors to support a transition to 100% renewable energy. These unprecedented events prove even more powerful in the light of the ground-breaking speech by the Head of the Central Bank of England, Mark Carney in late September 2015. Referring to the fact that most of the proven fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground to keep global temperature rise below the dangerous 2 degree Celsius benchmark, Mr. Carney stated: “If that estimate is even approximately correct, it would render the vast majority of reserves “stranded” – oil, gas and coal that will be literally unburnable without expensive carbon capture technology, which itself alters fossil fuel economic”.

In conclusion, for the reasons outlined so far, we are ever more convinced that we have now reached a critical stage in the energy transformation. Fossil fuels and nuclear power are now bound to remain stranded assets not only because they are environmentally destructive or bad for the climate, but more importantly, because they have become a financially NOT viable option for the 21st century. This in itself will help to scale and speed up the move towards100% Renewable Energy and realize globally what is already happening in many communities, cities and regions: a fossil-fuel free society based on a distributed, customer-centric and participatory energy infrastructure. Just imagine what world would be possible, if we now even learn from the 100% RE champions and make the transition on our own terms, in ways that maximize the benefits to us today and to future generations.

Changing energy pathways means changing subsidy flows

At the end of 2016 the US federal government is set to revert the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) on renewable energy from 30% back to the pre-2006 level of 10%, and similar policies are in motion in many other countries around the world. Simultaneously, and without signs of change, estimates suggest that US provided $37.5bn in fossil fuel subsidies in 2014, including $21bn in production and exploration subsidies. Creating a situation in which taxpayers are supporting polluting energy in favour of clean energy.

The ITC was designed to encourage the use of certain sources of renewable energy, including solar energy. It is the most significant federal policy to support the development of green technology. Since its implementation, there has been an increase of over 4,000% in photovoltaic installations alone in the US. It is a policy that puts the US on a path towards a greener, more secure, energy supply, until 2017.

There is a basis for ITC reversion; the market like any market needs to be able to stand on its own two feet. Although, surely, environmental responsibility and rapid climate change should afford green technology more assistance, because whether you’re a staunch free market capitalist or a green, regulation happy socialist, climate change is affecting the world you live in. You’d have to have your head in the oil sands not to realise that we need to change our polluting ways to reduce the impact of an inevitable environmental crisis.

Matt Roberts, executive director the US-based Energy Storage Association, said that he would always favour market-based solutions over incentive-based ones. However, he said, there is a total lack of a market structure that puts value on non-polluting and potentially more efficient technologies over fossil fuels. “Whether you call it an incentive or whatever, where’s the value on clean energy? Whether it’s a tax on carbon or some other structure, it just doesn’t exist right now”.

Incentivising the renewables industry must be the logical route to reduce carbon emissions or, on the other side of that coin, heavier tax and regulation could be placed on polluting forms of power, in order to encourage the growth of clean energy. However, the situation we find ourselves in is one of reducing clean energy incentives, while sustaining vast federal support for the affluent and highly polluting fossil fuel industry.

In the US, estimates of annual fossil fuel subsidies range from $10bn to $52bn annually and don’t include costs borne by taxpayers related to the climate, local environment, and health impacts of the fossil fuel industry.

The Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act, sponsored by Senator Menendez was debated and defeated by the Senate for two years running, and would have eliminated $2.4bn in annual tax deductions for the five major oil companies: BP, Exxon, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips.

President Obama has also proposed cutting certain subsidies to the oil and coal industries every year he’s been in office. The projections for savings have varied slightly each year but always hover around $4 billion annually. Congress has never even agreed to vote on any of them.

Internationally, governments provide up to $1-trillion in subsidies annually, G20 governments accounting for $452bn. Their continued support for fossil fuel production marries bad economics with potentially disastrous consequences for the climate. It is tantamount to governments allowing fossil fuel producers to undermine national climate commitments, while paying them for the privilege.

The highly publicised COP21 climate summit in Paris last week, amidst varying praise and criticism from the environmental lobby, ties the 195 participating nations to reducing carbon emissions and encouraging clean energy development. The unprecedented level of this international environmental agreement leaves many in the US renewables sector optimistic that the ITC will be extended. Be it the ITC or another platform, change will need to come about in this most illogical of policy situations.

The Author:
This post is brought to you by Emma White from Auvisa.org. Auvisa.org is an Australian visa agency and it provides professional Australian consular service. Auvisa.org was founded in 2011 by Australian immigration lawyers and it has helped thousands of people to get the visa to Australia. Emma White is an environment enthusiast and interested in writing about renewable energy and contribute to a better world.


Africa will lead by example in the Renewable Energy transformation

The Paris agreement has been widely praised as an historic agreement, as “the world’s greatest diplomatic success”. For the first time, all nations have come together “to curb emissions, strengthen resilience and join in common cause to take common climate action”, said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon after the announcement of the agreement.

But one of the key protagonists that should be really praised for is Africa,whose nations showed a clear standing and commitment for the scaling up of renewable energy. Indeed, the African delegation has been the only one setting themselves a mandate to increase RE in the COP21 negotiation text, “acknowledging the need to promote universal access to sustainable energy”. Africa is telling the world that they will lead by example. And there is no better approach than betting on Renewables.

This is why the Africa Group of Negotiators also presented in Paris the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative, “to help African countries advance “towards renewable energy systems that support their low-carbon development strategies while enhancing economic and energy security”. Its goal is to produce 300 gigawatts (GW) of electricity from renewable energy sources for the continent by 2030. And to be a real “game-changer” helping the continent to “achieve sustainable development, enhance well-being and sound economic development by ensuring universal access to sufficient amounts of clean, appropriate and affordable energy”

As succinctly pointed out by the World Bank, less than 25% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa has access to electricity. Consequently, the vast majority of households continue to rely for their energy consumption on traditional biomass, such as firewood and charcoal, or kerosene, which unsurprisingly increases social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities. In addition to this, the poor reliability of the electricity sector translates into economic loses for African manufacturing enterprises (as high as 20 percent) and recurrent power outages (on average 56 days per year).

This situation is compounded by the high cost of producing electricity, with tariffs falling in the range of US$0.13 per kilowatt-hour, as opposed to US$0.04 to US$0.08 per kilowatt-hour in most parts of the developing world. In Tanzania, for example, this reality translates into the poor spending about 35% of their household income on energy while the better-off spend only 14%. And, even those connected to the grid opt nevertheless for burning cheaper biomass in an attempt to avoid paying high electricity prices.

Promoting renewable energy solutions can therefore help African countriesleapfrog the dirty development pathways, avoiding the environmental problems of unsustainable energy sources, the high costs of electricity generation, and the unnecessary costs of building long distance transmission lines to provide energy access to remote areas. And overall, it provides a window of opportunity to address the energy and development needs of the continent.

This position was also widely shared by the 22 parliamentarians from across Africa attending the workshop “Sustainability, Energy and Development”, organised in Nairobi in November 10-13 by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK, in collaboration with UNDP and the National Assembly of Kenya. And in which the WFC participated. As expressed by Agnes Mpingana Kafula, MP from Namibia “access to energy does not automatically lift people out of poverty, but the evidence points that either directly or indirectly, access to modern, affordable energy is linked to income generation”.

To better understand the links between renewable energy, sustainability and socio-economic development, a study tour was organised to the Eco-manyatta project, a sustainable pro-poor housing project targeted at pastoral and Maasai communities in Kenya to improve their conditions and living standards. The project has been launched in the Narok County, which sits in one of the most degraded part of the Mau Forest, and is experiencing extremes in weather patterns and the problems that come with it that do aggravate the problems of development: droughts, food insecurity, loss of biodiversity, displacement of communities in search of water and pasture. Moreover, forest degradations had led to regular floods and landslides.

The project utilises locally available and environmentally friendly materials, clean gas for cooking using biomass made from cow dung and solar lighting systems. And it has the ability of harvesting and storing rain water. Equally important, it has involved the pastoral community since the inception phase of the project. Taking into account the community’s vision has allowed to make it practically operational. While still in its pilot phase, the aim is to replicate and expand the Eco-manyatta project further. As emphasised during the workshop by Alice Mwaisaka, National Project Coordinator at the International Labour Organisation Kenya, “The Eco-manyatta has the potential to improve health and hygiene in a community where the life expectancy barely reaches 56 years for men and 54 for women. Furthermore, thanks to access to good lighting, children are now able to study after school, providing hope for further education”.

This is only one inspiring example showcasing how African communities have taken a proactive role, and have decided to make use of the vast renewable energy sources the continent is endowed with to address their social, economic and environmental problems. But, there are many more like this.

Take the case of Kasese, in Uganda, where the mayor has set the goal to shift his city to 100% renewable energy by 2020; or the community of Ouelessebougou, 80 km south of Bamako, in Mali, which in 2011 partnered with the national utility and a private solar company, ZED Mali-SA to build, install and operate a supplementary 216 KW peak solar PV plant to provide electricity during daylight hours. The PV plant also charges a bank of 73 batteries. And, all together, it ensures electricity supply from solar power for 18 hours a day. The same reasons encouraged the government of Cape Verde to set a 100% RE strategy by 2020. The island focused on both new sources of generation, as well as a combination of energy storage and estimated a total investment of €1.272 million, with all generation and storage projects included, which results in a levelised cost of energy (LCOE) between €0.104/kWh and 0.189/kWh, depending on which island is considered. A figure which is significantly less than the current LCOE of electricity generation using heavy fuel oil (€0.19/kWh), and diesel (€0.30/kWh).

For too long, the dominant model of growth in the continent has been heavily reliant on fossil fuels. But African leaders know that old recipes won’t work for their countries anymore and they are acting accordingly. This is very good news. Now the next step is to ensure through the right regulations, policies and incentives that this energy transformation serves the needs of the people and facilitate ‘the required system change’, from a centralised complex system, where supply chain is vertical, and the benefits are shared only among a few stakeholders to a decentralised one, with a horizontal supply chain, where new actors and stakeholders, including individual citizens and small businesses, enter the system, claim rights, and have direct impacts. This question is relevant in every country, region, city and community on the renewable energy track. But especially in Africa where affordable, accessible and clean energy is critical for the continent’s development.

Despite a weak outcome: Paris was first “renewables COP”

The UN Climate Conference in Paris was a test to see whether national politicians could keep up with the change we are seeing in the real world. Looking at the final agreement published today, one must note: No, unfortunately, our national governments have not passed the test. Instead of a climate deal that phases out emissions by 2050 and allows the world to keep global warming below harmful 1.5 degree, we rather see a text that still tries to manage emissions instead of phasing them out. This is well reflected by the fact that parties could only agree upon the goal of “achieving a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases” rather than a pact for decarbonisation.

However, something important and very encouraging has happened in Paris

The sense of urgency among the local implementers of a climate agreement is palpable and cities, citizens, businesses and communities are actively plotting how to best leverage their important role, despite the fact that national negotiators in the UN are slowing down action.

About 1000 mayors pledged to support a transition to 100% renewable energy. Hundreds of events particularly showcasing the rapid uptake of renewable energy took place in Paris in the framework of COP21. 53 of the world’s largest brands, including Coca Cola, Google, BMW and IKEA, have committed to do the same. Public support for scaling up climate action is atrecord highs. Youth, children and 3.6 Mio citizens from across the world call their leaders to keep fossil resources in the ground and go for 100% renewable energy.

And whereas the UN needs a unanimous agreement on the final negotiation text, countries gather in multilateral groups to take action: Africa for example jointly pledged its support for renewables in Paris by announcing the launch of the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI). The goal is to achieve universal access to energy on the continent. 10 GW of new and additional renewable energy capacity is planned by 2020, while the potential to generate 300 GW is expected by 2030. And India unveils a global solar alliance of 120 countries for a large-scale expansion of solar energy use in the tropics and beyond.

Twitter hashtags like #Go100RE, #RE100 or #Go100percent helped amplifying this big movement at COP and gives everyone a great idea on the dynamics in the past two weeks.

COP21 showed: the movement is unstoppable

Indeed, especially cities from around the world are already centers of climate action and innovation, and they don’t wait for international negotiations or congressional action. They come to COP21 with clear messages on what they need from national governments and the international community to leverage and scale up their successes.

In fact, many sub-national governments have achieved the target of 100% RE, such as the US cities Burlington, Greensburg (which rebuilt itself as a community powered by RE after a devastating 2007 tornado), and Aspen. The island of Bozcaada, in Turkey produces 30 times the consumption of the whole island and transfers the excess of electricity to mainland Anatolia. And the German town Wildpoldsried is now producing 469% more energy than it needs and is generating €4 Mio. in annual revenue.

Given the fact that cities account for 75% of global CO2 emissions this movement is very important. Also, looking into the next years, in which national governments are asked to review and scale up ambition in theirIntended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), they will need their local governments. So far, accounting the global GHG emission reduction that was submitted through the voluntary national contributions (INDCs), the world would still be heading to 3°C global warming. Therefore, renewable energies have to play a much more prominent role in the coming years.

Cities are the actors that can benefit from this transition the most. As pioneers already show, local economies can be strengthened by transitioning to 100% renewable energy. And the benefits case for companies is no less true. French energy group Neoen on Tuesday inaugurated a 300 megawatt (MW) solar farm, Europe’s biggest, which will produce power at 105 euros per megawatt-hour (MWh) for 20 years, well below the cost of power from new nuclear power reactors. As M&S, one the leading big companies integrating the RE100 Campaign puts it: “efficiency saves money (£22m pa for M&S), renewables create resilience future proofing biz”.

The role of the Paris Agreement in the coming months

Even though the negotiated text from COP21 does not live up to the dimension of the crisis, what happened in Paris in the last two weeks is a clear signal for investors, businesses, and the public: a signal for the end of the age of fossil fuels, and the transition to the age of renewables.

The UN Climate Conference proved again that our national governments are not ready to keep up with the change that is happening in the real world. It will therefore be job of business leaders, cities, communities and at the end of the day of every one of us.

We all know that “the future of renewable energies is a fundamental choice, not a foregone conclusion of technological and economic trends” (REN21, Global Future Report 2013). The achievements and pledges from local governments and big companies are therefore important catalyzer of change and prove again that 100% RE is not utopic, and that it is actually a real and cost-effective solution.

This becomes even more relevant in a moment of negotiations where phantom technologies such as geoengineering and CCS are being lauded (despite its social risks and dubious technological performance) as one of the solutions to limit the rise of global temperature to 1.5 o C.

We should all welcome those with the conviction to assume their role in changing the course of climate governance and embrace the “100% renewable energy” as opposed to “GHG neutrality” and similar wording. We need the pressure from the champions as well as from the vulnerable, who we stand in solidarity with, to show that another world is possible. And we need action plans so that cities and companies’ commitments can fulfill their commitment sooner than later.

Cities For Climate at COP21 in Paris

While national negotiators work to broker a climate deal in Paris, mayors from around the world showed yesterday that a global movement of local climate action is already underway. At the Climate Summit for Local Leaders, about 1000 mayors signed a declaration that supports a transition to 100% Renewable Energy. And in fact, events across the COP21 amplify the leadership of local governments and their important role for combating climate change.

As Gregor Robertson, Mayor of Vancouver, put it in the EU Pavilion on Thursday: “Cities are the laboratories that can inform and inspire a better future. One essential way is to show that 100% Renewable Energy is viable. This is our contribution to combat climate change”.

And as Vancouver, many cities in different continents are indeed ready to lead the way. “There are different recipes to achieve 100% renewable energy in cities.” says Harry Lehmann, General Director of the German Federal Environment Agency. Some of the recipes were presented in a side event in the German Pavilion on Wednesday, hosted by ICLEI, UBA, Energy Cities,Renewable Cities and the World Future Council.

Växjö, a town in Sweden, decided to be fossil fuel free already in 1996. The municipality developed a partnership with local firms, industries and transport companies to achieve this goal. They created a policy commitment “Fossil Fuel Free Växjö” to stop using fossil fuels and reduce CO² emissions in heating, energy, transport, businesses and homes. Växjö’s success story: The town`s district heating network uses heat from a combined heat and power plant, powered by waste wood biomass. Rather than importing energy, the city taps into its local resources, with half of its territory being covered by forest, and supplies its citizens with cheap and renewable heat. But not everyone supports this: “Three years ago, the municipality of Växjö was sued by the national competition authority for requiring city owners to connect to its local district heating system”, reports Cheryl Jones Fur, Member of Executive board, present at the side event in Paris. “Only a few weeks ago, theStockholm District Court ruled in favor of Växjö, marking a victory for local sustainable energy projects that are often unable to compete with free market imperatives”. The case was grounded on the fact that it created a form of distortion and restriction of competition.

This story shows that converting our energy system is about more than replacing fossil fuel with sun and wind as new energy sources. “The true transformation starts in the fundamental way our energy system is structured. And with it comes a battle, as power and profits shift hands from the few to the many.” says Stefan Schurig from the World Future Council during the side event. “Our current fossil fuel based energy system is characterized by complex centralized infrastructures where energy production and distribution is often held in one hand. In the necessary transformation towards 100% renewable energy, this is changing towards a decentralized, horizontal system, in which new actors and business models are required”.

This is an experience that also shares the City of Boulder in Colorado, US.Council Member and former Mayor Michael Appelbaum presented how national legislation and the state-owned utility hinder local action: “The Boulder community cares about climate change. Our community wants tomove away from harmful sources of energy generation, like coal, and switch to more renewable sources, like wind and solar. While we have control about land use and building codes, we cannot influence the way we generate and use our electricity. This is however the sector which causes the most GHG emissions in the city.” The electricity sector in Boulder is controlled by the state-owned utility Xcel. “In order to harvest our renewable energy potential and achieve our goal of 100% Renewable Energy, we must create a local, municipally-owned utility. We need distributed generation, an open market and an inclusive approach. But US national legislation prevents us from doing that”, says Michael Appelbaum.

The example of Boulders proves the importance of policy coherence. AlsoByron Shire in Australia experiences this. The city, located in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales aims to transition the entire Byron Shire region to zero greenhouse gas emissions within 10 years. The project addresses all sectors of emissions, focusing on the five key areas of energy, buildings, transport, land use and waste. In order to realize this, Mayor Simon Richardson needs to empower new actors to engage in the energy market: “Byron Shire also acts in a limited electricity market with little competition. In order to harvest our enormous solar PV roof-top potential, we need a retailer that buys the renewable electricity from us. The state-owned companies and the national policy framework unfortunately do not help us. Therefore, we want to empower our citizens to become this retailer. In this way, the money also stays in the region and we strengthen our local economy”.

Christine Milne, former Member of the Australian Parliament and Ambassador of the Global 100% RE Campaign, seconds this by highlighting: “State-owned companies have invested in centralized systems for many years, which now leaves us in a deadlock. Australia sadly enough, is an example for how old structures prevent and undermine renewable energy development. Local governments have the opportunity to democratize the energy sector”.

Even though many may think that all the above does not apply to China, Mr. Chai Qimin, Deputy Director of the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation (NCSC) also amplifies the necessity of policy coherence across governance levels to improve integration of renewable energy: “As China is now in the times of “The New Normal” [which means one digit growth rates] the local level and industry generate less revenues. This means that the national government has to support local actors and not leave the burden to them.”

Considering that this conversation took place in Paris in the framework of the COP21, one can be hopeful that policy-makers from different governance levels start talking to each other. Because only then, we can actually achieve our common goal: To limit global warming to maximal 1.5 degrees and save the lives of millions of people across the planet.

Morocco: The new renewable energy superpower IF….

Morocco is making headlines to become the renewable energy superpower with the world’s biggest concentrated solar plant in Ouarzazate. And indeed, it is not only this project suggesting Morocco is the new pioneer on RE: King Mohammed VI called on the Ministry of Energy to formulate a roadmap within the next month to increase the growth of the renewable energy sector and to reinforce synergies among stakeholders. In September, the Moroccan Governing Council approved two amendments of bills which are key for renewable energy development in the country: bill number 48-15, regulating the electricity sector in the country, and bill number 58-15, which complements the renewable energy law 13-09. Both amendments can been seen as a move to show the government’s commitment and substantial efforts in the promotion and liberalisation of the renewable energy sector.

So, has Morocco actually found the answer to meet the country’s growing energy demand, increase independency from energy imports, decarbonise its energy system and achieve development at the same time?

After listening to experts, academics and policy makers at the WFC roundtable on “100% RE in Morocco: how and on which model?” held in Rabat last month, I would say: Yes BUT…

“Yes”, because the amendments of the policy framework suggest a hopeful renewable energy future for the country. For example, bill 48-15 aims at establishing a new independent regulatory institution called ANRE (Autorité Nationale de Régulation de l’Électricité), which will clarify roles and responsibilities of all actors involved in the electricity transmission and distribution, and the management of medium voltage electrical system. Until now, regulation fell primarily on the state-owned utility ONE (Office National d’Électricité), which is also responsible for the electricity provision and transmission system operation. This institutionalisation aims at accompanying the changes in Morocco’s RE sector, and at sending a strong signal to the industrial sector and private investors that there is political commitment for RE; as pointed out by Abdelkader Amara, Minister of Energy in Morocco.

Moreover, bill 58-15 will allow connecting RE production facilities to the low voltage grid. Similarly, it will allow RE producers connected to the high voltage or very high voltage grid to sell up to 20% of their electricity surplus to ONE.

And this brings me to the big “BUT”: For Morocco to unleash the incredible renewable energy potential, be a pioneer in the region and achieve sustainable development, it needs to establish a robust, coherent and clear legislative framework which builds on a decentralised and inclusive approach. And this is not the case yet.

A decentralised and inclusive approach must, first and foremost, enable local governments and regions to engage in the transition and empower them to establish independent systems of electricity production. Unfortunately, the current policy framework excludes small and medium sized projects, hinders private and local distribution networks and hampers local governments and citizens to invest in local renewable energy production.

For example, the law 13-09 does not specify access conditions to the low voltage grid, which is very important to stabilise the grid, and to facilitate and optimize the deployment of renewable energy. In fact, the Moroccan legislative frameworks needs to expand eligibility for selling surplus from renewables to producers connected to the low-voltage and medium-voltage grid. Also, the current cap of 20% surplus which is allowed to be fed into the high voltage or very high voltage grid, introduced by bill number 58-15, needs to be increased.

Indeed, if Morocco wants to solve its pressing energy crisis, it needs to go beyond the current efforts and give priority grid access to electricity from renewable sources. Also, the government needs to create beneficial conditions for self-producers and small and medium-sized investors. At present, legislation is vague in this regard, with not a single mention to the status of “self-producer”.

Last but not least, the needed amendments in the legislation must be combined with ambitious targets beyond 2020. Establishing medium and long-term targets would provide a pathway for how RE can solve key challenges such as raising energy demand, high energy dependency, raising emissions which worsen climate change, as well as the lack of skilled and educated people. A reliable long-term renewable energy target would give a clear mandate to actors of this transition (from individuals to corporations), it would reduce the risk of competing policy goals and mixed signals (as it is the case today) and would thus provide policy security for investors.

I am therefore convinced that Morocco’s current commitment to RE is indeed the right answer for solving some of the major challenges the country is facing. Nevertheless, in order to deliver in time and at scale, as well as to ensure sustainable development for Morocco’s people, the government must revise its strategy and empower new actors to engage in the energy market.

The good news is that with Morocco being the host country of the next UNFCCC conference 2016, we are in a favourable timeframe to show the country’s strategic position regarding RE and take the lead in the region. As the Moroccan press highlighted a few weeks ago already, the motto must be: “Énergies renouvelables: Plus vite et plus loin!” (Renewable energy: further and quicker!)

Congress on Energy Transformation

As part of the congress “100% Erneuerbare Energie Regionen” in Kassel, Germany, the World Future Council, together with deenet, organised an international forum to present 100% Renewable Energy solutions from Germany, Europe and the world on November 11.

100 renewable energy pioneers from around the world came together to share their solutions and strengthen the Global 100% RE network!

Flickr album

Regenerative Urban Development in China

Transforming cities into regenerative systems is a big challenge. This is especially true in China, where most of the world’s biggest cities are faced with severe pollution problems and the issues of urbanisation, sustainable resource use and environmental protection are at the top of the political agenda. The 4th Future of Cities Forum in Munich in 2014 showed that the concept of regenerative cities can be a path-breaking solution for China considering its rapid urbanisation. In June 2015 the WFC Commission on Climate and Energy launched a 5-year programme on Regenerative Urban Development in China with an office in Beijing.

Study Trip to El Hierro

Blown way by the success oh 100% Renewable Energy in El Hierro, Canary Islands, Spain

The World Future Council in cooperation with the Instituto Tecnológico de Canarias (ITC) hosted a study tour to El Hierro, Canary Islands, Spain for European Parliamentarians in order to provide hands-on capacity building on 100% Renewable Energy (RE). It provided an opportunity for Parliamentarians to meet practitioners and experts from the field to learn about potential policy outcomes and effects. The study tour did not only provide education and practical experiences but also an interactive and informal platform for knowledge exchange and discussions among policy makers.

Facts about El Hierro’s 100% RE strategy

How is the island supplied by 100% RE?

El Hierro’s 100% renewable energy strategy is anchored to its climate and geology. It benefits from stable and relatively strong winds throughout the year, and has appropriate island topography for the development of a pumped hydro storage system. As such, the majority of its 100% target is now being met by an 11.5MW wind farm, whose output is coupled with the functioning of a pumped hydro facility situated in a volcanic crater. When the winds are strong and the output from the farm exceeds the island’s demand (whose peak is approximately 7.5MW), the excess electricity is used to pump water into the upper reservoir constructed in empty crater for storage. When the winds are weak, or absent, the water stored in the upper reservoir is released and runs through hydro turbines (four units with a combined capacity of 11.3 MW) to produce electricity and storage in the lower reservoir. In this way, the pumped hydro system acts as a battery bank for the whole island. Another component of the system are the desalination plants that produce water for the islands’ residents – the plants are operated in an integrated manner with the wind farm, ensuring that the water supply for the island is also generated in a clean and sustainable way. Another component of the long term strategy is to replace the island’s 4,500 cars with electric vehicles, in order to further reduce reliance on imported fuels and promote sustainable development on the island. Finally, a focus has also emerged on encouraging the island’s agricultural industry to make greater use of bio-digesters in order to make use of local resources more efficiently.

What policy and governance framework enabled the success?

The Canary Islands’ policy framework integrated four political goals in a coherent and integrated vision, including 1) strengthening and diversifying the local economy, 2) energy security, 3) water security and finally 4) climate and environmental protection. El Hierro`s 100% RE strategy was enabled by the strong political will and commitment by the island`s government. Whereas the Regional Energy Plan for the Canary Islands foresaw a RE target of 36 % by 2020 for the region, El Hierro`s government officials achieved the implementation of 100% RE for their island. On the
regulatory side, Orden IET 1711, which sets the specific regulatory regime for the Wind-Pumped Hydro Power System of El Hierro, was key to realize the vision.

By proving its success, El Hierro inspired policy change for the Canary Islands as well. The regional parliament strongly supports the 100% RE target and has started to develop a robust policy framework to replicate the success on other islands. For example it just recently adopted the “decreto eólico 6” that simplifies the procedure for the authorisation of wind farms in the Canary Islands. Until now, wind farms were authorised through a tender process, which has delayed the installation of many of them. Now, the projects are authorised by the Regional Government, if all permissions are provided by the promoter (i.e. the promoter is not obliged to “wait” for the resolution of a tender process).

The initiative on El Hierro is a product of the close cooperation between the island government of the Canaries (which owns a 60% stake in the project), the Instituto Tecnológico de Canarias (which owns 10%), and a private Spanish energy and utility group (which owns the remaining 30%). Finally, there are several interconnected factors that have helped turn El Hierro into a leading example of a 100% renewable energy island. These include:

  • a long tradition of environmental leadership,
  • a sustained political vision among the local and regional governmental leaders
  • a high level of environmental awareness among the population, including the potential
    consequences of climate change
  • a desire for greater self-sufficiency

What does 100% RE in El Hierro cost and how does it impact the economy?

The current electricity generation cost on El Hierro provides significant opportunity for lower cost alternatives and to displace the diesel generation on the island. The island’s oil use is currently approximately 40,000 barrels per year totalling approximately USD $4 Million in annual fuel import costs. Estimates suggest that the project will save the island approximately $2.5 Million in diesel costs every year. The remainder is currently used in the island’s transportation system. However, once the vehicle fleet is transitioned to rely on domestically produced electricity, this will effectively eliminate the island’s reliance on diesel power. This will not only save the island millions of dollars per year in imported fuels: it will also reduce its exposure to fossil fuel price volatility, making it more resilient to external shocks and strengthening the local economy by keeping more of its income in the region.

The Canary Islands are relatively isolated, approximately 300 kilometers from the coast of West Africa. This remoteness makes it more costly to import power system components such as generators, turbine towers, and distribution system infrastructure; it also makes it more expensive to fly in technical experts, such as engineers and project developers. This was partly overcome by partnering with, and building on the existing capacities of a local institute based in the main island Gran Canaría (ITC) that provided significant technical and strategic support over the course of the project. Drawing on the capacity of the ITC made it possible to develop a cluster of expertise in the Canary Islands. Hereby, the island has become a hub for knowledge sharing and for providing advisory services to other island governments as well as to stakeholders in countries with off-grid regions. This has had direct positive impact on the local economy and created jobs as well as new business models. Finally, the support of both local, national and international institutes, of business partners, as well as funding bodies such as the European Union played an important, if not invaluable role.

Lessons learnt from El Hierro’s 100% RE approach

As an island, El Hierro provides valuable lessons for other constituencies implementing 100% RE. This is particularly true for other islands as well as for countries with off-grid regions. Here, technology transfer and advice can facilitate the replication of El Hierro`s success model – particularly the provision of clean water through renewable energy powered desalination plants – which can stimulate rural development and improve the quality of life of the poor. Similarly, jurisdictions with an interconnected system and national grids can draw on the experiences of the island with a small population of about 10.000 inhabitants. Whereas the technological approach is probably not directly transferable to industrialized, grid-connected countries, the policy framework provides valuable lessons and experiences. 10 elements of a 100% RE policy framework, which the EL Hierro example proofs right:

  • 100% RE is technically and economically feasible and is a matter of political will to achieve it.
  • A stable, reliable and robust regulatory framework is the determining factor for the long-term success. The perceived risk of RE resulting from political uncertainty is hence the biggest barrier.
  • Energy in many parts of the world is closely related to freshwater: 100% RE can be achieved by adopting an integrated policy approach for the energy and water sector (incl. desalination and wastewater treatment).
  • 100% RE is a tool for energy and water security: It reduces the jurisdiction`s exposure to fossil fuel price volatility and energy imports, making it more resilient to external shocks and strengthening the local economy by keeping more of its income in the region.
  • 100% Renewable Energy can generate new economic activity, create jobs and is a tool to create socio-economic value in a society as well as diversify the local economy.
  • A 100% renewable energy strategy must be anchored in the existing climate, socio-economic context and geology. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy and local feasibility studies should inform the implementation plan.
  • 100% RE can generate significant cost savings.
  • El Hierro suggests that a significant expansion of RE in the transport as well as in other sectors (water, heating/ cooling etc.) will need to become a strategic priority for governments to achieve 100% RE.
  • By developing more efficient energy infrastructure, it becomes easier to develop, finance, and integrate the remaining infrastructure required to meet a jurisdiction’s energy needs with locally
    available renewable resources.
  • By providing market access to a wide range of stakeholders (incl. public and private ones), policy makers can help build positive synergies across the region and leverage investments.

Policy recommendations deriving from El Hierro’s 100% RE approach

For National Legislators

  • Set a political 100% RE target to provide leadership and streamline actions and hence resources.
  • Provide a robust, reliable and coherent policy framework that reflects long-term investment security.
  • Develop an evidence-based and comprehensive narrative to communicate benefits and opportunities of RE to the public.
  • Simplify administrative procedures to reduce costs and enable investments.
  • Electrify the heating/cooling and transport sector
  • Adopt an integrated approach to fiscal, education, infrastructure, economic and energy policy.
  • Develop efficient energy infrastructure which include the reduction of energy demand as well as the establishment of integrated systems to enhance energy efficiency.
  • Implement inclusive policy frameworks that allow a broad range of public and private stakeholders to participate and new business models to emerge.
  • Foster sustained citizen engagement to ensure acceptance and maximize the benefits for the people.
  • Strengthen and empower regional governments to develop regulatory frameworks based on local and regional conditions (e.g. distinguish between islands and main land)

For European Legislators

  • Phase-out all direct and indirect subsidies for a fossil fuel-based energy system.
  • Develop a fiscal policy framework for RE.
  • Develop binding RE targets and a robust frameworks beyond 2020 for RE with ambition and leadership.
  • Provide funding for RE related infrastructure development as RE leads to profound changes in the way energy system.
  • Establish an Energy Union that builds on 100% RE to achieve energy security, sustainability and economic competitiveness.
  • Strengthen local and regional governments to adopt and develop adequate energy solutions for the respected area.
  • Ensure full and active participation of regions, communities/cities, and local authorities in the Energy Union.
  • Include the narrative of a feasible and viable 100% RE target in the Paris process by referring to examples.

Next steps

  • MEPs host a Lunch Debate in the European Parliament to enhance the debate on 100% RE with other MEPs and members of the commission.
  • MEPs explore opportunities to highlight the need for a national binding RE targets in the EU and putting RE at the heart of the Energy Union.
  • The group contributes to fostering the positive communication around RE as a solution to Climate Change and a tool to spur economic and social development.
  • Peter Liese reaches out to EU Commissioner Arias Cañete.
  • Eva Kaili and Marijana Petir present the El Hierro as a case study for the feasibility of 100% RE in the STOA Panel.
  • Boleslaw Piecha explores opportunities to engage Polish communities and policy makers in the debate on 100% RE.
  • Marijana Petir explores opportunities to present El Hierro as a case study for the feasibility of 100% RE in Croatia.
  • Eva Kaili and Marijana Petir explore opportunities for follow-up study tours to Croatia and Greece.

Flickr album