All Is Not Lost

The world was on its way to massive energy transitions before the pandemic came. Governments were announcing ambitious clean energy targets and banks were shying away from funding coal projects. Big businesses, too were flexing their muscles, announcing 100 percent renewable energy targets to be met in the next few decades.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the major shocks in major history, happened. It caused disruptions in every business, mobility, and everyday life. This pandemic also caused the most severe economic recession since World War II.

As the world grapples with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, has all been lost when it comes to clean energy transition? Are governments less keen on keeping up with their clean energy goals and Paris Agreement targets?

Not all bets are off said Boston Consulting Group (BGC) Center for Energy Impact. COVID-19 may have changed the economic calculus of many governments but these could bode well for renewable energy development.

The consulting group studied how regions around the world are adopting evolving stimulus measures that are altering energy transition plans. The study noted that Europe’s clean energy shift is likely to move forward while some hard-hit countries in South Asia, Africa, and Latin America’s ability to promote energy transitions are severely constrained. It also said that the adoption of renewable and electrification of transport in Northeast and Southeast Asia are likely to increase.

BGC said some countries are pushing forward with their clean energy plans as they have suffered less adverse health and economic impacts from COVID-19. Many leading Asian economies such as Singapore, Malaysia, China, Japan, and South Korea are in a good position to make substantial energy infrastructure-related investments required to make the energy transitions. These countries, after all, are likely to gain the most by aggressively investing in renewable energy generation. These Asian countries have also adopted policy reforms and stimulus measures aimed at increasing industrial competitiveness.

BGC also looked back at history to determine how governments’ responses to economic recessions influence the energy sector’s trajectory.

Back in the global recession of 2007 to 2009, various governments implemented green stimulus programs justifying such moves by saying that a greater commitment to renewable energy development could jolt economic development and offer long-term competitive benefits. 

Green energy policy measures back then were not entirely brought about by climate change concerns. The Paris Agreement did not exist back then. BGC stressed that the European Union and the United States governments directed stimulus spending towards renewables to generate new installation, domestic construction, and manufacturing jobs.

Governments too can bank on renewable energy development to drive economic activities during this pandemic. A report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) released last year showed that accelerating investments in renewable energy can help economies recover as they can spur the global gross domestic product (GDP) by almost $98 billion between 2020 and 2050. Renewable energy development can also quadruple the number of jobs over the next three decades.

BGC recognized in its report that the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recession that comes with it are quite different from the 2007 to 2009 global recession. The collapse of the economy back then required governments to stimulate and sustain new economic activity while the present recession is forcing governments to allot more resources to combat the health crisis while minimizing the impacts of unprecedented short-term employment. Governments are more focused on keeping the economy afloat given their smaller tax revenues and higher spending, rather than jump-starting new economic activity.

In the Philippines, we can expect a much slower energy transition. Aside from the fact that the government’s lukewarm reception to renewable energy before the pandemic, the Philippines also has trouble getting back to its feet economically speaking. As I write this, we are on the fifth week of the enhanced community quarantine or ECQ part 2. The recent jobs report also showed that 4.2 million Filipinos lost their jobs while 7.9 million took pay cuts in February alone. 

According to BGC, “the worse a country is affected by the pandemic, the less likely its government and businesses are to be able to focus on materially altering its energy infrastructure.” It added that energy transitions require a stable economic and social environment to pour substantial investments in energy infrastructure. As the Philippines is badly affected by the pandemic, our country’s clean energy transition will probably be slower.

But this is not to say that the Philippines is in a hopeless situation regarding the clean energy transition. There has been good news last year, after all.

For one, the Department of Energy (DOE) implemented a moratorium on the approval of new coal contracts. It was a move that surprised many as the DOE previously rigorously defended its technology-neutral stand. 

Second, Yuchengco-led Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation surprisingly declared that it would stop funding local coal-fired power projects, following the footsteps of international banks like US third-biggest bank, Citigroup, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation of Japan, South Africa’s ABSA bank, and Mizuho Financial Group. Such a bold move deserves the country’s gratitude for pioneering this much needed change in our energy landscape.

The Philippines, however, has to make some policy adjustments to attract low-cost funding for renewable energy development. As I have been saying, requiring a higher level of fixed-price contracts is long overdue. Likewise, I have been advocating for a portfolio approach to energy planning so that the tariffs are also based on this portfolio approach.

I’m not alone in these assertions. A study by S&P Global entitled, “How is COVID-19 Impacting the Energy Transition” noted that global investment appetite for green energy remains strong but sustaining appetites requires either fixed-price auctions or long-term visibility in terms of power price agreements. As I have always argued in the last, fixed price contracts will lead to lower power rates for the man on the street.

The Philippines has so much to gain in shifting to renewables swiftly. Even before the pandemic, our government was aiming to become an upper-middle-income country status by 2022. Sustaining economic growth will require more electricity, and local electricity demand is seen to increase by an average of 6.7% annually.

Plus, we need energy security. This pandemic should teach us that it is necessary to end our reliance on imported fossil fuel to power our nation. Just imagine the devastating effect had Indonesia closed its borders and decided to stop exports of its coal. Thankfully, it didn’t happen, but by now we should be working on ensuring our local energy supply.

And experts after experts predict that it would be cheaper to build renewable energy plans than continue the use of existing coal-fired plants, which eventually would become stranded assets.

We are facing monumental challenges in the Philippines as the coronavirus continues to claim lives and cause havoc in our economy. But hopefully, we continue our quest for a faster clean energy transition as more renewables will help us in our economic recovery and ensure energy security. As they say, we need to build back better.