IRENA Study Finds Renewables Are Becoming Popular In Large Cities

Electricity

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) released a study on renewable energy policies for cities last month. The reason for the focus on cities is due to their ability to scale up renewables and meet emission-reduction targets. Large cities have the revenue bases, regulatory frameworks, and infrastructure to support this while smaller ones usually don’t.

The study pointed out that it’s mostly cities that are raising awareness and moving towards energy transitions. Smaller and even medium-sized cities that have 1 million or fewer inhabitants usually don’t have the funding or political support to embrace renewables, and they are also not as highly visible as megacities.

The study analyzed six medium-sized cities from China, Uganda, and Costa Rica. They were chosen due to two reasons:

  1. They have effective policies in place, or
  2. They have untapped renewable energy sources that could launch their sustainable development.

A Quick Look At The Study

The study takes a dive into the challenges and successes that are seen in the deployment of renewable energy in medium-sized cities and provides case studies of the six cities studied. A quick look at the executive summary shows that these cities have a population range from 30,000 to 1 million inhabitants.

Image courtesy of IRENA.

Altogether, cities are responsible for around 70% of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. Urban areas have high rates of air pollution as well, with 98% of cities with over 100,000 inhabitants in low- and middle-income countries failing to meet the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) air quality guidelines.

Renewable energy technologies (RETs) play a central role in easing the severity of climate change while providing cleaner air. Research is often focused on the urban trends of particular sets of global megacities and doesn’t really focus any attention on cities with 1 million or fewer inhabitants, which is the fastest growing category and home to some 2.4 billion people (59% of the world’s total urban population).

Cities are motivated to promote renewables by several factors, such as:

  • Economic development and jobs.
  • Social equity.
  • Governance.
  • Air quality.
  • Secure and affordable energy.
  • Such as access to clean energy.
  • Climate stability.
  • Energy-related policymaking requires a lot of flexibility — it involves governance structures and processes as well as the diverse motivations of many stakeholders.

Image courtesy of IRENA.

Cities’ plans need to be tailored to their own circumstances, and some factors shaping city energy profiles include:

  • Demographic trends.
  • Climate zone.
  • Ownership of energy assets.
  • Settlement density.
  • Regulatory authority.
  • Institutional capacity.
  • Economic structure and wealth.

Image courtesy of IRENA.

Case Studies 1 & 2: Chongli District and Tongli Town

The two cities in this section are Chongli District and Tongli Town. In the cases of these two Chinese cities, the study found that both benefit from the availability of large-scale renewable energy projects, with wind and solar being the best options. It has a level of existing deployment which provides a solid base for the cities’ ambitious targets compared to other cities where renewables aren’t as present.

The Chinese cities benefit from the availability of financial resources that target renewable energy deployment. Tongli Town receives support from its upper-level administration, which has one of the largest revenue streams among Chinese city governments.

Tongli Town is one of the most replicable in developed cities that resemble Suzhou. Although Zhangjiakou City isn’t as wealthy as Suzhou, the Chongli District was able to receive financial support from the national government as a result of the Winter Olympics.

Its example shows that distributed renewables could also play a large role in cities. PV generation systems could be deployed outside of highly populated city centers, for example. Tongli Town also benefits from the relationship between local governments and local manufacturing industries that deploy RETs.

Showcase events such as the Winter Olympics also help a city gain visibility — this is what happened with the Chongli District. It and the Zhangjiakou Municipality linked the development targets of local renewables with the hosting arrangements of the Winter Olympics. This focused political attention and financial support on renewable energy projects.

Cross-governmental collaboration and existing manufacturing industries benefitting from renewable deployment also played key roles.

Case Studies 3 & 4: Kasese and Lugazi

This case study focused on the Ugandan cities of Kasese and Lugazi. Uganda has a variety of energy resources that includes hydropower, biomass, solar, geothermal, peat, and fossil fuels. Yet only 20% of the population has access to electricity. The World Bank estimated in 2017 that only 2% of the nation’s population has access to clean cooking fuels and technologies.

In Uganda, renewable energy deployment benefits the local communities in many ways while boosting socio-economic goals. In both Lugazi and Kasese, solar street lighting and solar home systems (SHSs) massively saved both municipalities and households while extending business hours for street sellers. It’s also improved public safety and telecommunications, which led to the creation of job opportunities.

Ugandan cities face obstacles to greater local deployment. Institutional constraints, such as narrow political mandates and tight municipal finances, present huge obstacles to effective policy action. Scaling up projects will need greater funding as well as capacity building. This requires a national enabling framework that supports the local government at the district and municipal levels. Kasese and Lugazi have benefited from initiatives targeting sustainable energy at the district level.

Financial resources for both district and municipal governments are needed. Renewables may offer savings in the long run, but the upfront costs usually surpass the funds available to Uganda’s municipalities and districts. For now, initiatives such as solar street lighting are usually linked to third-party financing support. An example of this is the World Bank’s Uganda Support to Municipal Infrastructure Development Programme.

Case Studies 5 & 6: Cartago and Grecia, and Guanacaste

Costa Rica has a population of around 5 million people and is the smallest of the three countries that were studied in the report. Some key questions discussed in the country include what role is played by the public and private sectors and what degree to which electricity generation should be based on centralized and decentralized sources. Some of the key issues and challenges that shape the nation’s efforts to promote the use of renewable energy include:

  • Mandates.
  • Strengthening cities’ ability to act with a diverse set of actors.
  • Transport as the next frontier.

For cities without the mandate, their scopes of action are limited and this is one of the main obstacles to a sustainable urban future. In the case of Cartago and Grecia, the cities have taken active measures to promote green policies in the transport and tourism sectors. Costa Rica’s “capital of renewable energy,” Guanacaste, has hosted several projects in the fields of wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

Another key lesson from the study in the case of Costa Rica is that when the share of renewables in the electricity mix is already high, transport becomes the next frontier. Compared to Columbia, Panama, and Chile, Costa Rica has a lack of municipal transport. The other countries are advancing with electric buses and other electric-mobility projects and these contrast with Costa Rica.

You can read the full 158-page report here.


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