Mini series: Creating a common language for solar in the energy mix

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From August pv magazine

pv magazine: What are key points of the draft solar specifications to which you contributed?

Long Seng To: The Solar Specifications show how solar energy resources and projects can be classified. It does so by giving guidance on how to apply the UN Framework Classification of Resources (UNFC) to solar energy, and is based on broader Renewable Energy Specifications. The UNFC is a universally acceptable and internationally applicable scheme that provides a tool for sustainable development of energy and mineral resource endowments.

Long Seng To: “It would be great to develop a set of case studies using the final solar specifications to show how it could be implemented.”

Image: Loughborough University

How will these standards help to accelerate solar deployment?

The specifications give us a way to systematically compare the cost of solar against non-renewable and other renewable energy resources. This will make it easier to identify opportunities to invest where solar energy is most cost effective.

At the moment, solar energy projects are typically assessed by the energy that can be utilized over a year, while oil and gas are assessed in terms of energy that can be extracted over the lifetime of a project. This underestimates the energy from solar projects. The Solar Specifications allow for fairer comparisons.

Can you speak to why energy resources have been assessed differently in the past?

Like other technology areas, people working on different energy resources came up with different ways of assessing each type of resource. There has been increasing recognition that there needs to be a way of bridging across different energy resources, and there has been strong interest from industry in expanding the UNFC [United Nations Framework Classification for Resources] to include renewable energy. I think it’s a sign that renewable energy is entering the mainstream in energy decisions.

It should be noted that there have been efforts to classify and compare solar resources with other energy resources before, but these have been ad hoc exercises that took a top-down approach. The UNFC uses a project-based approach, which better identifies the amount of energy that can be utilized and how long the solar installations are expected to last.

UNECE mentions that the standards reflect uncertainties in the development phases of solar projects – what is meant by this?

This is the key that allows project developers and investors to use the specifications to quickly get a sense of the maturity, meaning the viability and feasibility of the project, as well as the confidence of energy estimates. As projects are developed, more and more information is gathered about the economic, environmental and social viability of the project, project feasibility, and the level of confidence in the estimated quantities of solar resources. The Solar Specification helps to classify the projects according to the level of certainty in each of these aspects. It can also be used to track portfolios of projects that are in different stages of development.

Do you see further benefits to adopting the recommended standards?

The Solar Specifications provide governments and international organizations with a framework for making resources assessments and monitoring the energy project pipeline, including projects about to come onstream. Current renewable energy assessments tend to focus on the physical characteristics of the resource rather than the useful energy that might actually be of benefit to the country. Many resource assessments do not currently take into account issues of infrastructure or market access – things that are central to the UNFC and Solar Specifications.

What are the challenges to creating these standards?

There was a challenge in creating a common language around energy that could be applied to both renewable and conventional energy sources. For example, it makes sense to talk about “reserves,” or commercial resources, of oil and gas. But this concept hadn’t been applied to renewable resources. This was something important to resolve to progress renewables into the mainstream.

How is this ‘reserve’ defined for a renewable resource?

Solar ‘reserves’ consists of commercial solar projects where development of the solar resource is economically, environmentally and socially viable, and where technical feasibility has been confirmed. The solar resource is the cumulative amount of solar energy products, like electricity and heat, that will be generated from the solar irradiation via a project.

What’s the next step to roll these specifications out to the industry and investors?

We, at the solar-subgroup, are gathering feedback from industry and investors on the draft Solar Specifications. Comments received will be considered for the finalizing of the document. The final document will be presented to the UNECE Committee on Sustainable Energy for endorsement during its annual meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2019, in Geneva. The committee is an inter-governmental body, and after its endorsement, the solar specifications will part of the official UNFC documentation.