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Social challenges of trans-Mediterranean renewable power cooperation

Final Report Summary - DESERTECTION (Social challenges of trans-Mediterranean renewable power cooperation)

In order to stop climate change, the world needs to end all greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels within the next 30 – 40 years, which almost certainly means replacing those fuels with alternative sources of energy. There has been a large amount of technological and economic modeling of the challenges of doing this, but very little research that has examined social constraints, and how these, though effective policies, could be overcome. This latter area has been the research objective of this project, with a particular focus on the geographically contiguous regions of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Our most important finding is that scaling renewable energy up almost certainly requires a greater level of international cooperation on energy system governance than existed in the past. We have numerous separate results that support this generic conclusion.

The first area where our results suggest that cooperation is essential is with respect to building large infrastructure projects in developing countries. Here, we find that the main barrier to economic competitiveness of renewable energy is high borrowing costs, associated with a high perceived level of risk. International cooperation can, through attention to governance transparency on the one hand and financial sector development on the other, lower borrowing costs, enough to make solar and wind energy the most competitive today.

The second area where we find cooperation to be essential is with respect to infrastructure planning. Renewable energy systems function best when they cover a spatial scale that extends beyond the boundaries of single weather systems. Our results show that for Europe, for example, wind energy can be scaled up in a manner that does not lead to greater supply variability, if new wind-parks are planned with continental-scale weather regimes in mind. In the case of North Africa and the Middle East, networks of solar power plants can provide reliable electricity around the clock and around the year, but only if they span multiple countries. And finally, we need to reform the rules for the siting of international power lines, so that the energy from these networks can actually move around.

The world has witnessed a dramatic falling in the costs of renewable energy technologies, and one may be tempted to believe that they can now compete on their own in a free market, and policy intervention is no longer needed. Our results show this to be far from the case. Scaling them up to where they can completely replace fossil fuels, and do so with high levels of energy security, will require close attention to these social factors.

Altogether, the project led to 25 peer-reviewed journal articles, one book, and numerous presentations at academic conferences and workshops dealing with climate and energy policy, contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as well as blogs and newspaper articles written for a non-academic audience.