Laurie Guevara-Stone, writer/editor for the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Solutions Journal, interviews RMI trustee Maria van der Hoeven about energy access and security — two critical global issues.
A member of RMI’s Board of Trustees since October 2015, Maria van der Hoeven has had a long career working on challenging modern energy issues. She served as executive director of the International Energy Agency from 2011 to 2015, was on the Advisory Board for the UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative, and served as minister of economic affairs of the Netherlands and as Dutch minister of education, culture, and science.
Solutions Journal: You spent four years as executive director of the International Energy Agency, which focuses on energy security. How do renewables and efficiency, and by extension RMI’s work in those areas, help improve energy security?
Maria van der Hoeven: The IEA started in 1974, during the height of the oil crisis, and focused on oil, then gas, then coal, as an answer to the energy crisis. But energy security means you have affordable, reliable, uninterrupted energy for all, and renewable energy and energy efficiency are a big part of that. You can’t have energy security without reliable locally sourced power. So in 2012 and 2013 we put out midterm reports on renewables and energy efficiency, the first time the IEA addressed those issues. It was quite apparent to me and to many others that those two issues are a huge part of energy security.
SJ: You also worked with the UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative. What do you think the biggest challenges and opportunities are for bringing access to sustainable electricity to developing countries?
MVH: One of the biggest challenges is the sheer numbers involved. We have 1.2 billion people on the planet without access to electricity. Many of these people live in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, where there is a huge growth in energy demand and in population. So when we talk about a million people — or even tens of millions of people — getting out of energy poverty, the number of people left is still huge. How to help people get out of energy poverty is another challenge, and an opportunity as well.
Even though there are a lot of projects happening, to make a project sustainable one must take a whole-systems approach. Too often, when an organization implements a project and then leaves, the project disappears. The organization has not taken into account the supply chain, the service chain, added value, capacity building, and other important issues. That’s why RMI’s project in Rwanda is an excellent test case. We are bringing all of these things together and doing it with all the different stakeholders, including the government.
SJ: What do you think is the most critical energy issue globally today?
MVH: We are living in a moment of growing geopolitical tension. This makes it harder to collaborate. But we need to collaborate on carbon and emissions reductions. Take, for instance, the INDCs [intended nationally determined contributions] from COP21. To reach these targets, countries need to work together. The INDCs will definitely be difficult to achieve. Right now they’re still on paper. The proof is going to be seen in the next five years. But if developed and developing countries work together, we can reach our targets.
SJ: The IEA publishes a yearly World Energy Outlook, an incredible source of energy market analysis and projections. What do you think the energy mix will look like in 2050?
MVH: The World Energy Outlooks use different scenarios based on different policies to project outcomes. It is clear that different policies get you to a different outcome. In the most positive one we stay within two degrees, and in another scenario we may go beyond six degrees.
My hope is that everything that has been said and been promised about phasing out coal and putting a price on coal and carbon is going to happen. But it depends on how well policymakers will work to make it happen. In 2050, we will still have fossil fuels, not only in power generation, but also in other parts of industry. But it will be and needs to be less than now. That’s where energy efficiency comes in, and of course renewable energy, and even innovation in fossil fuels. What RMI is doing now to reduce fugitive methane emissions is excellent; it is also part of the solution. When policy, innovation, and the market all come together, change can happen.
SJ: The June 2016 World Energy Outlook focuses on energy and air pollution. How do market-based approaches help address these issues? And do you think it’s possible to solve the world’s air pollution problem while also sustaining economic growth?
MVH: There are quite a few countries where the word “climate” doesn’t resonate as much as in other countries. In China for example, air pollution is a huge problem, caused by coal-fired power plants. That’s why focusing on air pollution can
“Focusing on air pollution can be a great vehicle to limit fossil fuels. It’s important to show people who don’t believe in the climate issue that air pollution is a huge problem that needs to be improved.”
be a great vehicle to limit fossil fuels. Many people say coal is cheap, but coal isn’t cheap at all. Buying coal is cheap, but the use of coal brings in a lot of costs — health costs, environmental costs, and more. It’s important to show people who don’t believe in the climate issue that air pollution is a huge problem that needs to be improved. And yes, it is definitely possible to solve the air pollution problem while sustaining economic growth. There are examples from all over the world where there has been a decoupling of the two, for example, in both the U.S. and China.
SJ: What excites you most about our work?
MVH: One exciting thing for me about RMI is the commitment and engagement of the staff and donors. There are so many people who want to work with us. Not only do we have dedicated donors, but we have an incredibly committed, dedicated, and skillful staff. That kind of engagement is exciting. You can have the money, but without the right staff, you can’t deliver, and vice versa. Another thing is that RMI is well respected. Being an independent nonprofit gives the organization a lot of credibility.
I also like that RMI is working on disruptive approaches. But what really makes the difference is the approach — getting business involved, getting innovation involved, and getting the financial world involved. Programs like eLab and the Business Renewables Center are excellent, bringing together innovation and industry. That makes it possible to scale up. And in the end, we need to have a certain scale and impact to make a difference.
This article originated in RMI’s Solutions Journal.