Bangkok native Pavina Adunratanasee MPA ’14 first became interested in access to energy when watching a documentary about a social enterprise that provided solar access to villages in Karnataka, India. Her interest in renewable energy bloomed while interning at a development financing institution in Myanmar in 2013. At SIPA, Adunratanasee focused on bridging the gap between policy and private capital to improve access to financing for clean energy projects in emerging markets. Upon graduating from SIPA, Adunratanasee went on to advise on mobilizing financing for renewable energy projects across emerging markets.
Currently working for Iberdrola Australia, a global renewable energy developer, Adunratanasee is also a climate tech fellow at On Deck and a Climate Corps. Leader at the Climate Reality Project. Previously, she worked at Siemens Financial Services, where she was exposed to onshore wind development in the Asia-Pacific region.
She spoke with SIPA News via Zoom from her current home base in Sydney, Australia. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Can you talk about some of the decarbonization efforts that you’re currently working on?
To avoid a climate disaster, we have to get from 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases to net zero by 2050. With global energy demand expected to increase by as much as 58 percent in the next three decades, the urgency to transition away from burning fossil fuels is unprecedented. The P4 pathway, defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, shows that today’s technologies have the potential to reduce global emissions by about two-thirds. We can achieve net zero emissions much more quickly than is widely imagined by deploying and scaling the technology we already have and without collateral damage to society or the economy.
And we’ve seen a lot of that disruption already happen in the clean energy sector, with the prices of solar and wind and battery coming down. In many jurisdictions, renewable energy is actually more cost competitive than fossil-fuel alternatives. Since 2010 alone, solar photovoltaics (PV) capacity costs have fallen over 80 percent, onshore wind capacity costs have fallen more than 45 percent, and lithium-ion battery capacity costs have fallen almost 90 percent.
The next phase of rapid decarbonization is about mobilizing resources towards the transportation sector and industries that are hard to abate. Climate expert modelling has indicated that cheaper, clean disruptive technologies in the transportation, energy, and food sector can reduce emissions by 90 percent by 2035.
I currently work for Iberdrola, a global renewable energy producer where I lead the commercial deployment of behind-the-meter technology solutions across solar, storage, and electric mobility in the Australian market. Australia is an interesting market where, essentially, there’s been the highest penetration of residential solar rooftop in the world at 2.5 million households. There’s been an opportunity to provide solutions to effectively integrate flexible distributed generation into the grid.
What is the biggest roadblock — cost? Or is it a policy problem?
I think it’s a combination of economic incentives and policy. Some of these technologies, like being able to retrofit the built environment, come at a green premium — meaning that switching to newer, greener technologies has been costly for consumers. This is by and large due to externalities of carbon emissions not really being accounted for. We need to see carbon pricing factor in the environmental damage caused and this may incentivize producers and consumers toward more efficient solutions and catalyze innovation that reduces green premiums. This means making it easier for residential and business consumers to switch to cleaner technologies like solar PV, battery systems, and EVs.
We’re seeing a lot of momentum behind pushing cities to transition to green technology. It is projected that 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030 and there’s already billions of dollars annually earmarked for cities to help them build climate resilience. The current impediment is that the private sector is working in silo from the public sector — bridging this gap is key to catalyzing capital for net-zero transition. If you look at the amount of venture capital that has gone towards climate tech this year — within the first half of 2021, $14 billion has been invested in climate tech solutions — the missing link here is being able to build inclusive policy making in a way that cities are involved in designing and retrofitting such technologies thereby creating new markets for innovators.
From your perspective, what are the areas where there’s positive momentum that you’re seeing, and what are the areas where there’s still a lot of work to be done?
The transportation sector is going through an unprecedented transformation. We’re seeing a lot of momentum backing the transition of passenger vehicles, school buses, and last-mile delivery trucks to the electric fleet. In the U.S., the Biden administration has included $174 billion to invest in the electric vehicles initiative (EVI) market. The EU installed nearly 200,000 charging points last year, and China installed 800,000 charging stations in 2020.
The demand for EV charging infrastructure will outpace its supply in the coming years and the lack of access to charging infrastructure is the biggest bottleneck to accelerating EV adoption globally. We need new business model innovations so we can roll out charging infrastructure in a cost-effective way.
The other trend that we’re seeing is that EVs represent a new source of clean electricity demand. In the U.S. alone, experts forecast that we’re going to need almost double the electricity generation capacity to serve the electric mobility sector — so the grid needs to be able to respond quickly and fill this gap. When we couple that with smart charging software that enables consumers to optimize charging during periods when there is an influx of renewables and reduce peak loads in the grid, we have a gamechanger for the mobility sector.
We know that so much of the impact of climate change disproportionately affects marginalized communities, vulnerable communities, and communities of color. How do you build that perspective into the policy and the technology that you’re working on developing?
That’s a problem space that I feel very connected to, having grown up in Thailand. I've experienced firsthand the impacts of climate change — parts of the geography are already quite susceptible to extreme weather events, such as tropical storms, floods and drought — all of which may intensify in future climate scenarios.
Climate change is going to displace at least 200 million people globally, and the UN estimates that 80 percent of those likely to be displaced are women — two thirds of them are living in poverty. A warmer world is going to be devastating to low-income farmers in Africa and Asia. A just climate transition is also looking at how we can engage vulnerable communities in the global south to be a part of the transition and introduce technologies to help them adapt to climate change and build resilience. Building resilience at the local level is fundamental to an equitable climate transition — one solution is to mobilize catalytic capital towards localized solutions designed by communities that are at the frontlines.
One of the key challenges is how can we democratize access to capital and build climate innovation ecosystems in cities like Bangkok, Jakarta, and Manila, where communities are extremely vulnerable to climate change? People from marginalized communities have historically been left out of the energy and infrastructure transition. The climate transition is about putting people at the center of the transition, and making sure that technologies that are being designed by the private sector with funding or policy support from the public sector are designed at the local level.
Outside of institutions and policy, how can individuals take the lead in climate issues?
There are a couple of measures that individuals can take to be a part of the climate transition. Behavioral change is important if you can reduce your own personal carbon footprint, but I think we really need to be going beyond that. With climate tech disruption, we need more innovators in the ecosystem. Building organizations or being a part of organizations that have sustainability and DEI at the center of their corporate policies is really important. The third thing is being conscious of how we're using our dollars — for instance, switching your pension from funds that have not divested from fossil fuels or investing in companies that have a clear commitment to net zero.
There are now climate-focused career tracks that didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago. What are some emerging career tracks in this space that you would tell SIPA students to begin thinking about?
The past couple of decades were about decarbonizing the electricity sector. Now the transition we’re seeing is that of the transportation sector as cities like New York take measures to ban the use of internal combustion engines by 2035.
Looking forward, I think there are opportunities to disrupt the agricultural sector, introducing more efficient technology to improve farming methods and regenerative agriculture. Another interesting trend set to continue for the next couple of decades is looking at how to apply artificial learning and machine learning tools across climate tech verticals.
Sustainability was long considered a corporate social responsibility initiative within the corporate agenda, but climate risk assessment is now becoming key to making sound commercial investments. Commercial risk assessment across sectors need to assess the impacts of climate change that we’ve seen from wildfires, and drought to floods taking place globally. So I think what the financial sector is now looking at is how to calculate the risk of climate impact to the investment decisions, as well as being able to accurately report on its carbon emissions in a way that moves away from greenwashing. We’re seeing a fundamental shift in how corporations are tackling their climate impact - this presents an opportunity for technologists, scientists and innovators to support them in achieving net-zero targets.
What did you come away with from SIPA that led you into the next phase of your career?
What drove me to come to SIPA was my interest in bridging the private sector and the policy world to solve a critical social challenge. The Capstone workshop is one of the most valuable lessons that I learned the importance of being able to manage various stakeholders, align different viewpoints, and try to work in a wider team to progress a collective agenda.
Another aspect of my time at SIPA that remains quite valuable is the global network that I have built. I have a network of professionals within the development and policy space that I have been able to reach out to at different junctures in my career.
Finally, the most important lesson from being at SIPA is gaining that breadth of knowledge and experience across different functions. I've been able to bring some of those learnings into my day to day work in the clean energy space.
When discussing the climate crisis, it’s easy and understandable to become despondent. On a personal level, how do you stay hopeful?
We’re the last generation that can do something about climate change. If we’re talking about achieving net zero by 2050 we don’t have a lot of time on our hands. There’s still an opportunity to decarbonize and prioritize introducing climate mitigation and climate adaptation measures in various cities across the world. I believe now is not the time to debate about whether we should transition from fossil fuels or not. There have been various debates on how we can get to net zero, but there is broad consensus from the climate science community that there is a pathway to achieve it. Arguably, solar, wind, and storage will disrupt coal, oil, and gas; and autonomous electric vehicles will disrupt internal-combustion engines. We have seen a consistent pattern of mistakes and corrections over time, where each year the market underestimated the threat of climate change. Mainstream conventional thinking has wasted time and resources on ineffective approaches to solving climate change like subsidies and taxes, biofuels, clean coal, and clean diesel rather than the underlying problem.
As a society, we need to be able to move away from prolonging action and get down to electrifying our households and businesses rapidly to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change. The profound realization that we have a tremendous amount of work ahead and that this is a collective responsibility keeps me motivated to show up each day and work on climate action.
— Brett Essler