Major fossil fuel players are planning for the inevitable transition to clean energy – and it was all on display at the latest World Energy Congress, last week.

The world’s largest and most influential annual energy event was held last week, when more than 4000 delegates, including chief executives, policy-makers and industry practitioners, converged at the 24th World Energy Congress under the theme ‘energy for prosperity’.

The congress halls were full of exhibition booths for the biggest oil and gas companies in the world, with displays worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the real focus was all about the transition to renewable energy.

A flagship event of the World Energy Council, the triennial congress offers a unique platform for global energy leaders to explore new energy futures, critical innovations and new strategies.

This is the first time since its inception in 1924, that the congress has been held in the Middle East – the region that produces over 30 per cent of the world’s oil.

Oil still remains the largest fuel source for our energy needs. The United Arab Emirates is listed as the eighth largest producer of global oil supplies (Australia is 33rd on the list) and the host city, Abu Dhabi, holds 94 per cent of the federation’s reserves.

Abu Dhabi has about 97 billion barrels of oil in reserves, which would provide 2.7 years of the world’s energy requirements at the current consumption rate of 100 million barrels per day.

However, during the Congress’s lavish opening night, Minister of State and CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company Group, Dr Sultan Al Jaber, told delegates that over three times the amount of energy currently consumed by all of Europe would be added to global energy demand in the next two decades.

“To meet this demand, we will need an inclusive response that integrates and optimises a fully diversified energy mix,” he said.

Hydrocarbon industries remain a powerful force but the transition to other fuel sources such as hydrogen, sun, wind, tide and nuclear power was the main topic of discussion.

The World Energy Congress plenaries, panels and pitches were all focused firmly around the transition processes. The Congress seeks out the strategy for a collaborative, sustainable and innovative energy future that enables societal, commercial and community prosperity.

Data is the new oil

The President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, told the Congress that “for Estonia, data is our oil”; the country has centralised energy data and delivered a smart grid across the country.

Other innovative approaches to the energy future included the Start-up Energy Transition (SET) network, established by the World Energy Council to bring together the most outstanding international start-ups in the field of energy transition. The Council flew in representatives from the top 100 companies nominated to be leading the charge into renewable energies and stable electricity supplies. Only seven of these organisations were from Australia, the vast majority coming from European nations.

Australian energy technology start-up SwitchDin, a leading provider of virtual power plant and microgrid software for utilities, was represented by founder and CEO, Dr Andrew Mears, who said the Congress was “a massive, high-energy event – clearly full of some great energy-minded thinkers, companies and organisations”.

“We were excited to be able introduce our tech and explore new opportunities for deployment with forward-thinking energy companies and manufacturers,” said Mears. “It was also great to see so many fellow Aussie companies on display alongside us.”

“When it comes to energy, Australia certainly punches above its weight on the world stage.”

Day one of the week-long event included a pitching session for each of the 100 start-ups, to showcase novel technologies and find sponsors who will help companies to move to the next stage.

Progress frustratingly slow

In some ways, the Congress was a study in contradiction – when you walk around the exhibition booths you’ve got acres and acres of the biggest oil and gas companies in the world with displays worth hundreds of thousands of dollars – yet every single session was about the transition to renewables and everyone was 100 per cent committed. Of course, progress reports show we’ve got a long way to go and we need to move faster to make the necessary transition.

Global leaders and innovators shared that frustration during discussions but it was clear everyone was charging forward with a combination of commitment, focus, and vision.

Jean-Pierre Clamadieu, vice chair of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, expressed his frustration in a tweet he made about his participation in the opening plenary:

“This year, we witnessed a number of significant and concerning events for the climate. We have also seen pressure mounting from citizens around the world. We need to move and we are urged to do it quickly.”

The reality is, it’s still a carbon world. Billions of dollars are being made out of this and it is very hard to change even though from the top down everyone is committed. It’s about finding a roadmap: helping companies and countries to make money from going green is not easy, but we hope we’re part of the solution.

Day two of the World Energy Congress included the World Energy Leaders’ Summit CEO Roundtable, where energy transition ideas were workshopped in depth. Participants described the event as a peek inside the brains and boardrooms of the global energy sector.

The workshop looked at first-hand experiences of the initiatives, barriers and opportunities associated with energy transition. One example was given by a shipping company that is building new ships with the capacity to run on clean energy.

The company currently uses diesel and electric power but when batteries are the right price and density, its ships will quickly and efficiently switch to renewable power. On return journeys, ships are usually lighter, so batteries could have the capacity now for these journeys. In general, recharging with solar power at ports is seen as the obvious solution.

On the last day of the congress, it was noted that two of the Australian start-ups had made it into the SET top 10 final pitching round to an audience of potential investors and collaborators.

One of them, the Pollinate Group, is an innovative social business delivering clean energy products to poor communities in India’s city slums and Nepal’s remote villages. The other finalist, DC Power Company, is segmenting the electricity retail market and unlocking the full potential of Australian household solar and creating a market place for emerging technology and service innovation.

Despite the influence of oil on the world’s economy, participants recognised the role blended technologies will play in the future. Bringing the change-makers together at the congress is certainly a way to discover the best solutions for the future from the multitude of options.

Richard Romanowski is executive director of Planet Ark Power, a Brisbane-based solar technology and artificial intelligence company which won an SET award in April and has announced a Series A capital raising venture . The next World Energy Congress will be held in St Petersburg in 2022, but the discussions will continue in March, next year at the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue.

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