World Energy Congress highlights dramatic change

In just the past five years, the energy industry has been reshaped by fast-paced change, technological breakthroughs, environmental catastrophes and the rapid spread of renewables around the world. The developments promise to make this year’s World Energy Congress a significant event.

Celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, the triennial congress, takes place Oct. 13-17 at the EXCO Exhibition & Convention Center in Daegu, South Korea. The world’s largest energy gathering, the 22nd World Energy Congress will bring together more than 5,000 industry executives, government representatives, delegates, exhibitors and sponsors to discuss, analyze and better understand the current issues facing the global energy sector. In addition, the congress’ accompanying exhibition event will host up to 25,000 participants.

Speaking to pv magazine, Christoph Frei, secretary general of the London-based World Energy Council, the World Energy Congress’ main sponsor, says the issues facing the energy sector today are not just dramatically different than just a few years ago, but also revolutionary.

"It’s a very different context now than even five or 20 years ago. For example, five years ago peak oil was still an issue. Peak oil today is no longer an issue given the shale revolution," Frei explains.

The changes are evident not just from the point of view of producers, but also from investors, he adds.

"If you ask yourself, 20 years ago, what the investment signals in the energy sector were, there was only one really: it was the oil price. Today, clearly there is a variety: oil prices, gas prices, the collapsing PV prices, the CO2 prices. I think that complexity is one area that describes very well the change from today’s congress to previous congresses — much greater complexity."

Another element in today’s energy sector that will mark this year’s congress is the great speed of events, says Frei, pointing out that two decades ago, things moved at a much slower pace.

"If you look at what happened over the past five years, how long it took for shale gas to go from 3% to 30% in the U.S. — it took eight years; collapsed solar prices from $4.70 to less than $0.60, it took five years; Fukushima happened, the Gulf spill happened in the last couple of years, these were events that had critical impacts on energy.

A very different even than the 2010 congress in Montreal

"If you take those two developments together, on the one hand the variety of signals and complexity that has arisen and, on the other hand, the speed of those events, they define the current context of complexity and uncertainty. We haven’t seen that kind of complexity in the past to the extent we are seeing it now and that obviously affects the congress program, it affects the need for having truly all parties at the table: government, private sector, various aspects of private sector, finance, etc., and it also affects the interest of people to the need for that. It’s truly a different concept; it’ll be a very, very different congress."

The 2010 congress in Montreal took place in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and was followed by the Fukushima nuclear disaster a few months later. Both catastrophes have had huge impacts, leading to the broader use of renewables.

Hwan-Eik Cho, chairman of this year’s World Energy Congress organizing committee, says the world’s "$6 trillion energy market will also be shaped by the rise of renewables and alternative fuels as well as development of new energy technologies," a development that will be highlighted at this year’s event.

Frei adds: "We have a renewable context that is very different from three years ago. The renewable boom was at its fullest in Europe. Then you saw the shift of production to the East, the shift of renewable consumption around the world – it’s very different from three years ago. Having the congress in Asia, at the heart of the new demand, is exciting."

The collapse of PV prices "has left nobody untouched"

"If you look at what happened to PV prices over the years, the thing that has really amazed everybody in the sector is the collapse in price from $4.70 to less than $0.60 in five years – it has left nobody untouched,” Frei says. "The hope of grid parity has become reality in some places. It’s not reality everywhere yet, but the hope that it can become reality is much more plausible today than a couple of years back."

The surge in renewable energy has accompanied growing awareness, Frei says. "The recognition of the importance of energy, the recognition that energy access is mostly a rural issue, 80% rural, the reality that solar energy or other renewables will play a role in that context is a very important aspect."

In the short term, however, Frei says renewable energy will likely suffer from financial setbacks. “The shorter-term reality is that a global recession will dry out government funding — the possibility for governments to subsidize — not only directly but also in terms of development money. That will affect some of the renewable development in the short term.”

However, Frei points out that renewables are spreading quickly around the world and taking hold in in emerging markets.

"We are seeing a regional shift, particularly in the Middle East and parts of Asia that are waking up to renewables, and to photovoltaics in particular, and see great opportunity in that. If we put that together and project it into a longer term scenario, which we do, we see a great future for solar to be part of the solution."

While regions around the globe are embracing PV, the way in which it’s being done varies greatly from country to country, Frei says.

"Germany is in such a different context than South Africa, than Saudi Arabia, than China, so it’s very difficult to put it all under one roof, but it’s clear that every region has a dynamic: South Africa with its own independent power producers scheme that is getting off the ground; Saudi Arabia with their announcement of 40 GW of solar; China being the largest manufacturer … if you take all those developments together, they are all very different in various parts of the world but together present a very important outlook for solar energy."

Storage vital to PV growth

Stressing the importance of greater storage efficiency for PV, Frei says energy storage “is needed in many areas to make photovoltaics even more valuable. That is something that we monitor very carefully and it would be good to keep the numbers in mind: We have had the $4.70 to $0.60 collapse of prices in solar in five years but we have seen only a halving of costs in storage over a period of seven years.” Frei adds that storage efficiency must be increased to insure an "integrated future for solar."