Renewable Iran: Creating the Energy Network of the Future

Renewable Iran: Creating the Energy Network of the Future

The global energy industry continues to find greater value in efficiency and clean technology, with a rapidly growing reliance on renewable energy. For Iran and the Middle East however, oil and gas have hardly been challenged as the dominant industry forces. But now that Iran prepares to once again open doors to the international business community, we must ask if renewables can, or even should, play a greater role in the future of Iran’s energy sector.

So, what’s the problem?

Iran is the country with the world’s largest conventional gas reserves and is the world’s third largest producer of natural gas - behind the US and Russia. Given these abundant reserves and production, you have to question why has a country of Iran’s population been a consistent net importer of natural gas during the last decade. The answer is Iran has very high per capita consumption of gas and other fossil fuels, with much of it going into power generation. In 2014, Iran burned 50 billion cubic meters of gas for power generation: that is more than in the UK, Germany, Italy, and France combined. In fact, in 2013, Iran consumed more gas than China, and was the 8th biggest energy consumer in the world, despite being the 32nd largest economy (World Bank) and the 17th most populated country. 

Moreover, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Iran is among the top ten global emitters of CO2. Iran is the top emitter in the Middle East and accounts for almost a third of the region’s total carbon emissions. Fossil fuels account for almost 98% of Iran’s total primary energy consumption.

Of the 70 gigawatts (GW) of power generation capacity installed in the country, only around 11 GW are low carbon sources with most of that hydro (10 GW) while 1 GW is nuclear, and 0.1 GW is either solar or wind. The rest is largely old, inefficient, and polluting fossil fuel power plants burning either fuel oil or natural gas. According to Iran’s Ministry of Energy, over the past decade electricity demand has grown by almost 6% annually, and is expected to grow by at least 2% - 4% through the end of the decade. There are now more than 30 million grid connected clients in Iran, compared to less than 20 million only ten years ago. 

So, Iran faces the problem, how can it meet this rapidly growing electricity demand while reducing its consumption of gas and fuel oil to eliminate imports (and facilitate exports), reducing carbon emissions to more average global per capita levels, effectively addressing the challenging air quality issues, and still attracting foreign investment and new technology?

The Role of Renewables

The answer is likely to be found in a combination of a modernisation of its power generation capacity, greater energy efficiency, and much greater reliance on renewable forms of generation.

In terms of renewables, Iran is naturally blessed with very good solar and wind conditions. Iran receives around 300 days of sunshine each year, compared to less than 64 days in Germany, the world’s leader in solar power with almost 25% of the global solar power capacity. The Global Wind Energy Council stated that some of Iran’s mountainous areas in the west and northeast have unique wind corridors that have plenty of potential for renewable generation.

The Iranian government is starting to get that renewables should now be an important part of the country’s energy strategy. In early 2014, Iran’s Ministry of Energy unveiled its plans for adding some 5 GW of renewable power capacity, mostly wind, to the country’s power fleet by 2018. Since the beginning of 2014, construction for around 400 MW of renewable capacity has started, and contracts for more than 500 MW have been awarded. The Iranian government increased its budget for renewable energy by more than 400% last year to around $60 million; although still small, the growth is going in the right direction.

Iran has also adopted a number of new policies towards renewable expansion, using similar policies to many Western European countries and opening up the sector to foreign investors. The Ministry of Energy has set up the Renewable Energy Organization (SUNA) that will administer these policies that include a feed-in-tariff scheme, under which the Ministry of Energy will buy the power generated from renewable sources at set tariffs for a 20 year period. At the set energy tariffs, investors are expect to be able to recover a full return on their investment in around four years of operations. In addition, the Iranian government is committed to providing up to 50% of the cost of installing residential solar panels, and to installing solar panels in public buildings. 

Another spur to renewables growth comes from the calls to introduce a carbon emissions trading scheme. In February 2014, Iran announced that it is planning to introduce an emission trading scheme (ETS) that would cover its power sector. Although little information is available about the structure of the scheme, it is certain that such ETS's are designed to discourage the use of inefficient fossil fuel burning power plants. The emissions cap will eventually increase the power generation costs for inefficient power plants and will further support the growth of clean energy and renewables.

With all the challenges Iran is facing, renewable energy offers a unique sustainable solution for Iran to fundamentally overcome these issues, while providing significant investment opportunities for international investors, and also boosting the overall sustainability of economic growth. 




Photo Credit: Wikimedia

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