Report by Dr. Linda Anne Stevenson
Executive Science Officer, APN Secretariat
The current and likely future impacts of climate change due to carbon emissions from burning enormous amounts of fossil fuels are considered among the most important challenges faced by human beings. The nuclear crisis caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake on 11 March 2011 had a significant effect on the energy policies of Japan and the world, highlighting the importance of renewables as clean energy sources. Now is the time to diversify the energy portfolio with renewables such as geothermal energy, solar energy, wind energy, bioenergy and hydropower. Renewable energy has almost unlimited potential and will provide energy security when fossil fuel is depleted.
The Asia-Pacific region is abundant in natural resources and has a great potential to utilize renewable energy from a variety of sources. Southeast Asia is rapidly adopting and developing renewable energy for power generation. There is also an increasing demand for new technical skills as businesses and industries take more interest in renewable energy, making renewable energy academic programmes highly sought after.
The University Network for Climate and Ecosystems Change Adaptation Research (UN-CECAR) is a network of universities and research institutes in the Asia-Pacific established in 2009, to develop research and education programmes on climate change adaptation, ecosystems change adaptation, and sustainability science. The network aims to bring together the best resources and expertise in joint research for the design of appropriate policy and development strategies, and development of postgraduate education courses and training across disciplinary lines.
The 6th UN-CECAR Conference on Renewable Energy took place at the “Pillar of the Kingdom”, Chulalongkorn University—a campus located right in the heart of Bangkok, Thailand. The conference shared the knowledge, experience and technologies of renewable energy in the Asia-Pacific region to develop a new UN-CECAR curriculum on renewable energy. This pioneering programme aims to help prepare students in the Asia-Pacific Region to take the lead in providing renewable energy solutions to development needs with sound environmental management practices.
The first day was composed of three main sessions: Introduction to Renewable Energy; Policy and Implementation; and Economics¸ Finance and Business Opportunities. APN joined the conference on day 2.
Session 4, which focused on current research in the renewable energy field, covered issues such as microalgae biofuel research in Thailand; climate change risk for hydropower in Nepal; biomass energy in Indonesia, among others.
Session 5 on renewable energy needs and potential university education programmes, which also incorporated APN’s presentation on climate adaptation and low carbon initiatives for sustainable development, covered a number of interesting presentations including macro policy in Indonesia, renewable energy needs in Sri Lanka; natural forest biomass energy planning in China, among others.
Session 6 addressed Education and Capacity Development in renewable energy and participants shared information on their present efforts in Thailand (both Chulalongkorn University and Asian Institute of Technology—AIT), Malaysia and the Philippines. This session also covered an interesting presentation from Indonesia that highlighted the need to change the mindset of society and incorporate macro policies for energy supply and demand by considering renewable energy.
The Panel Discussion which was the final session of the conference was moderated by Professor Sivanappan Kumar of AIT. He summed up the two-day conference by stressing the interesting presentations from a wide range of expertise from the business sector and finance industries on day one and from other universities and educational institutions on day two. He reiterated that the global focus on renewable energy has become extremely important in recent years because of climate change and the need for sustainable development.
Professor Kumar stressed two main issues for renewable energy: unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy is site specific; renewable energy has far lower density of energy generation compared with fossil fuels, thus making renewable more expensive. Further, there are storage issues also in terms of supply and demand due to intermittent availability caused by seasonal changes or unsteady weather patterns. He finished by stating that society is accustomed to fossil fuel technologies for energy and it will not be easy to change the way we do things. This sounds like a simple problem, but will be a very challenging issue to address as the world attempts to move towards more renewable energy sources.
In the next 20 to 30 years we will expect about 25% of renewables in the Asia-Pacific region under a business-as-usual scenario. There is a hope that this will go much further and there will be a demand, therefore, for renewable energy specialists. There needs to be support from the policy sector as well as “out-of-the-box” thinking among those currently working in the renewable energy sector. For success, we will need to bring together chemical, mechanical and electrical engineers, as well as economists and social scientists to engage in multi-disciplinary efforts in order to make renewables an integral part of the energy expenditure in the Asia-Pacific region.
Dr. Srikantha Herath from UNU-ISP stated that renewable energy is important for mitigation and for adaptation options to climate change. He stressed the timeliness of the topic due to the recent nuclear crisis in Japan—there is now great interest in renewables in the country. “Coming together in this conference and sharing our experiences on courses and education practices in the various countries and their universities will help develop a potential course under the UN-CECAR framework,” he said.
Professor Ir Tumiran from Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia provided more context on why UN-CECAR was considering a renewable energy component, noting that his idea was generated three years ago when considering more carefully what was being addressed in the climate adaptation and ecosystem services components of the UN-CECAR programme. Professor Tumarin felt the necessity to focus on both upstream and downstream issues and stressed that present energy generation contributes immensely to the world’s disasters, especially GHG emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. However, because of economic growth, energy demand is increasing and we must therefore look at other sources that are not detrimental to the Earth System—especially for the developing countries. There is a large problem in that, however, development of renewable energy is much more expensive than using non-renewable fossil fuels.
While developing a course on renewable energy is still at the very early stages, some important points were raised during the panel discussion that will be considered further during the strategic planning process to realize an intensive 64-lecture course on Renewable Energy. Some of these are:
- Undergraduates could be targeted for renewable energy courses and top teachers can be targeted for UN-CECAR courses;
- UN-CECAR courses should cover broad aspects of renewable energy;
- Social impact assessments should be addressed including processes in manufacturing renewable components; occupational health and safety, chemistry of renewable energy, etc.;
- Social aspects, such as the process of changing lifestyles and behaviours, needs to be integrated into the courses;
- Local authorities, business and small enterprises should be encouraged to move towards renewable energies. A great challenge remains at this level;
- The transition period from non-renewable to renewable must also be considered—in reality, both need to be handled, therefore mixed energy and hybrid systems should be considered;
- In order for students to consider appropriate policies, it is important for them to understand their own countries’ situation regards natural resources available;
- There is a need to consider the national policy direction of each country;
- Debating activities would be useful to discuss current issues and develop more creative ideas.