Two days of conference hosted by the University of St. Gallen to discuss investments in renewable energy and the energy transition.
Last May the University of St. Gallen has hosted the 8th edition of the Forum for Management of Renewable Energies.
Two days of panel discussions, workshops and presentations on the latest market trends with regard to renewable energies in Switzerland and Internationally, bringing together the industry, the academia and the civil society.
Shortly before the referendum of May the 21st, that asked Swiss citizens to express their will on the national energy strategy, Professor Rolf Wüstenhagen opened the second day of the conference stressing how renewables are today cheaper than ever, consciousness of climate change is higher than ever and capital is cheaper than ever.
Why then isn’t the energy transition taking place faster?
That question was asked to the audience in a live poll, symbolically opening the second day of the conference.
The morning panel discussion tackled the first of the obstacles to the energy transition, the lack of sufficient investments.
According to a recently published IRENA study, additional investment in the amount of USD 29 trillion over the period to 2050 is needed.
The four panelists expressed quite optimistic opinions regarding the prospects of future investments in renewable energies, and some very interesting insights emerged when they were asked to go deeper in the details of their direct experience.
Bogdan Asanache – Head Business Development at Enel Green Power Germany – stressed how biggest investments take place in the US and emerging economies. This is due to the fact that emerging economies have higher demand and are in the need of building new capacity. Given that traditional capacity is more complex to build, they often give preference to green energies. What makes Europe slow is the ever-changing regulatory framework, ending up in a very unclear environment for investments.
Despite the legislative obstacle, many countries are improving their performances, as the UK, which is going more and more towards energy efficiency, as stressed by Louise Wilson – Founder and Managing Director of Abundance Investment Ltd. When asked about the impact that Brexit could have on increased investments in renewables, Wilson underlined how the decision of leaving the EU not only takes away some opportunities, but also brings some new ones.
On the same topic Felix Goedhart – CEO of Blue Elephant Energy AG – depicted the institutions and the public opinion as much more afraid that investors, which besides the concern of currency volatility, are not that worried about the impact of Brexit on their activity.
Goedhart also described the community of investors in renewable energy projects as becoming more and more diverse, with many new types of investors showing interest. However, in the specific case of Switzerland, the small size of projects deter big investment funds, much more attracted to big and more lucrative in the short term projects.
When asked about the main obstacles to increased investment, the speakers were quite in agreement.
First of all the regulatory framework, that needs to be clearer and easier, policies have to be reliable, predictable and investment-friendly, which also means with no retroactivity. A second fundamental issue that has been mentioned is the need for new and more efficient business models, coupled with increased transparency, especially in emerging markets.
Finally, vision, a clear idea of the desired outcome, so to lead the way to policies and innovation.
During the panel discussion the topic of crowd-funded energy projects emerged as a way to facilitate the energy transition by involving investors and engage them in renewable energy projects. By making the success of the projects a relevant part of the savings of community members, it would be easier to overcome barriers to change.
Later on Dr. Celine McInerney from the University of Cork illustrated her research in community finance stressing the vital importance of consistent planning, since investing in such projects can represent a significant risk for community investors.
After a long lunch break that left much time for networking, the afternoon started with several workshops that took place simultaneously, addressing a variety of topics, ranging from communication strategies regarding renewable energies, e-mobility, hydropower, gamification approaches to make renewable energy consumption fun, to the costs of wind projects development.
This last topic was already addressed during the morning panel discussion, when Gianni Operto – President at Aee Swisse – stressed the importance of easing the permitting system of wind parks, which is very chaotic and lengthy in many countries.
On this topic, during the workshop dedicated to wind power some interesting trends emerged.
The workshop was opened by Dr. Nathan Hultman, from the University of Maryland, that described wind as one of the fastest growing sources in the US (with solar being the fastest) even though offshore wind has taken up very slowly, since it is not subsidized. However, chances to build more offshore wind capacity are still encouraging, especially on the east coast, where political support for clean energy is stronger.
On average, from project to installation, only eighteen months are needed in the US. And even if to Dr. Hultman this seemed like a very long time, it is extraordinarily quick compared to Europe.
In fact, Prof. Dr. Ingrid Mignon from Linköping University and Dr. Anna Begers Brougel from St.Gallen explained that in Switzerland and Sweden up to 15 years could pass from project to installation.
This is mainly due to bureaucratic hinders that make permitting long, complicated and end up increasing costs and eventually discouraging investments.
The day concluded with a last panel discussion on a quite unorthodox topic for an energy conference: diversity. Diversity as gender diversity, given that more and more women are engaged in the energy industry and in the energy transition process. Diversity as generation diversity, with young generations described as much more conscious of environmental issues and of the importance of the energy transition compared to previous generations.
This last panel discussion raised diverging reactions in the public, with some passionately engaged and others less interested. But still, it was food for thought.
The conference was the occasion to present several initiatives and researches and more importantly, to bring together the academia and the industry which are very often quite distant with regard to energy issues.
The result of the referendum raises hopes for the future of investments in clean energy and more generally the energy transition in Switzerland. The #REMforum certainly was an interesting way to keep the debate alive before going to the ballot box.