Steve Sawyer

“The Paris Agreement was a milestone and has clearly marked out the direction of travel. But what will directly affect us are the decisions taken at the national level to implement them.”

Steve Sawyer has worked in the energy and environmental field since 1978, with a particular focus on climate change and renewable energy since 1988. He spent many years working for Greenpeace International, representing the organization primarily on energy and climate issues.

Steve joined the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) as its first Secretary General in April 2007. The Global Wind Energy Council represents the major wind energy associations as well as the major companies involved in the global wind industry.

At the GWEC, Steve is focussed on working with intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), The International Renewable Energy Agency ( IRENA), the International Energy Agency ( IEA), the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Asian Development Bank ( ADB) to ensure that wind power takes its rightful place as a viable energy option for the future, and to open up new markets for the industry in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Steve is also a founding member of both the REN21 Renewable Energy Policy Network and the IEA’s Renewable Industry Advisory Board.


The Beam: What is the main goal of the GWEC?

Steve Sawyer: GWEC’s goals are to maximise the spread of wind power globally; specifically we are the global spokespersons for the industry, providing global statistics and projections, and represent the industry in major intergovernmental organizations such as IEA, IRENA, IPCC, UNFCCC, REN 21 and with various multilateral financial institutions.

You have worked in the energy and environment field since 1978, what got you interested in renewable energies before they came to the forefront of important global issues?

At the end of 1972, after my father’s death, I needed to earn money so I ran a business which relied on driving my pickup truck about 200 km/day before school delivering newspapers to retail outlets and private customers over a large rural area covering five towns in southwestern New Hampshire.

When the first Arab oil embargo hit in the spring of 1973 and gasoline prices doubled in the course of a few weeks, I was directly impacted and my business was much less profitable. Further, taking over some of the family finances I was concerned that the public utility was charging us (a lot of money) in advance for the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power station, which was primarily for the benefit of large consumers in the neighbouring state of Massachusetts.

Both of these things grabbed my attention, and when I started working for Greenpeace more or less right out of college in 1978, energy issues were at the top of my agenda, and have been ever since. During time out from Greenpeace in late 1980 and early 1981, I worked for a small outfit called the Cambridge Alternative Power company, selling and installing solar hot water heaters, multi-fuel boilers, insulation materials, efficiency equipment, etc., taking advantage of the tail end of the Jimmy Carter Administration’s energy tax credit.

So you could say that I’ve been thinking about and dealing with the downside of fossil fuel dependency since I was 16.

What are the main challenges that society has faced since then and what are the future battles we are up against?

When I first became politically active in 1978, the great threat facing humanity was the prospect of a nuclear exchange between the superpowers, with a side issue of the eternal and ongoing conflict in the Middle East, which is about many things, but a significant part of it (especially given the formation of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1973 and the subsequent oil shock in 1979) was about the oil.

The equation of the power associated with energy and its political role was something that was clear to me from the beginning, as well as the strong connection in the United States and many other countries between the civil nuclear programme and nuclear weaponry.

Due to the political upheaval in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, as well as the reduction of the threat of nuclear annihilation associated with Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies in the former Soviet Union, this issue did not go away, and was rapidly overtaken by the emergence of the climate issue — I had my epiphany in May of 1988 — and it has been the major focus and preoccupation of my work ever since.

As a society we face a myriad of challenges, both political and environmental, but the climate issue is the most obviously existential one, i.e., if we don’t sort that out then human civilisation will be severely threatened in my children’s lifetime. It’s certainly not the only threat, but in my opinion it is the largest and most dangerous one.

There are, of course, other ways that we can make the planet uninhabitable, but those seem less immediate. Although the spread of infectious diseases through the overuse of antibiotics sometimes keeps me up at night, I don’t work on it.

Over the past few years a growing trend of investment in renewable energy has outstripped investment in fossil fuels. Unfortunately, we do not see that translating through to our energy mix as consumers. What more can citizens do to ensure their governments and energy suppliers move towards a more renewable and sustainable energy mix?

That depends very much on where you are: each energy and power market is different. We are making a difference in an increasing number of countries, and as they say, the pre-condition of a functioning democracy is an informed citizenry. Not only in terms of who you get your power from, but how you vote, what you buy, and probably more importantly what you don’t buy, i.e., SUVs, inefficient appliances, etc.

You helped the Chinese government formulate its renewable energy legislation. What can you say about this experience and where does China stand in terms of renewable energy?

Much more than any other government that I have worked with, the officials charged with forming China’s renewable energy legislation were open to ideas from other countries and others’ experiences. I think that is a national characteristic which is not well understood — they are like sponges soaking up every bit of knowledge and information they can. Of course, they then make their own decisions, but are not shy about learning from others and putting it to good use.

What are the projections for wind energy over the coming years? Which are the countries to look out for in terms of those taking big strides to increase their share of energy from wind?

We publish projections every year for the medium term, and longer term projections [via gwec.net] every two years. In short, we are working towards supplying close to 10% of global electricity supply by 2020, although it will probably be 8 or 9% depending on how demand develops, and roughly 20% of total electricity supply by 2030, again depending on how seriously the Paris agreement is taken, how demand develops, how the global economy develops, etc. Most scenarios that have us meeting the ‘well below 2 degrees’ target end up with 28–35% of global power supply coming from wind by 2050.

In terms of countries, China is, and is likely to remain, the world leader in wind and solar for some time to come. We have great hopes for India, although there is a lot of catching up to do. The United States’ recent extension of credits for both solar and wind provides some very welcome certainty to that most volatile of markets which will stand us in good stead over the coming years.

After China, our priorities have been Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and India, which are all going well now and we are at the moment focusing on the opportunities provided by the new government in Argentina, which could be a major player in the market in 5–10 years time. New markets that we’re interested in are Indonesia, Vietnam, Iran, Pakistan, the Philippines, Morocco, and Egypt, to name a few.

It is the case that most of the growth in the market is now outside the OECD in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and that is where we concentrate. Of course there is great untapped potential in places like Canada, Australia and Japan which we are also engaged with. The ‘terra nullus,’ so far, is Russia, and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia, both with great potential for wind and solar, but with not much happening so far.

How do the big conferences (like the COP21 in Paris) make a difference for associations like yours?

Paris was a milestone and has clearly marked out the direction of travel. But what will directly affect us are the decisions taken at the national level to implement them. Most of what was in the commitments put on paper in Paris were existing national frameworks with which we were already working, so there were no major surprises.

But of course the commitments in Paris do not get us to the long term goal, so we will need to see what countries do to adjust their trajectories in the coming five years to move us closer towards the goal of the Paris agreement, which will undoubtedly be to our advantage. It is still the case that outside the European Union (and to a large degree inside it) energy policy is determined nationally, and those are the markets we are trying to improve.

What technological breakthroughs will make a big change in the field of production and storage of renewable energy?

If I knew the answer to that question, I’d be in a different line of business. I think we have the technology solutions we need to address the climate issue in the power sector now, and they are all continuously improving (wind, solar, concentrated solar power, hydro, geothermal, etc.) and reducing their costs.

Battery storage seems to be moving in the right direction as well, which will help in many ways, not least in transport. If ‘breakthroughs’ come, they will undoubtedly help to make the transition faster and cheaper, but I would imagine that they would come on the usage side (smart grids, meters, appliances, the internet of energy, etc.) rather than on the supply side.

What is your hope for renewable energy in the next 20 years?

I hope that we will be well on the way towards a 100% renewable electricity supply by 2036, as we will need to be in order to have any hope of meeting the target of less than 2 degrees of global mean temperature rise, and wind (along with solar) will play the largest parts in that transition — at least that’s what it seems like today.

Much will change between now and then, and hopefully for the better, so we can make the transition quicker and make the world a better, safer place than it is today for our children and for their children.

What are you currently working on within the GWEC? Can you tell us about some ongoing projects?

Along with our ongoing commitments in China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, and in addition to our ongoing work especially with the IEA and IRENA, we have two large projects at the moment:

A four year project in partnership with DNV-GL, the World Institute of Sustainable Energy (WISE), the Centre for the Study of Science, Technology, and Policy (CSTEP) and the Gujarat Power Corporation to facilitate the development of an offshore wind industry in India [via http://fowind.in/].

A brand new push to work with the Argentine government and private sector to develop a vibrant market in that country, which has some of the best wind resources in the world. It’s early days, but it shows a lot of promise.

Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou