From Fringe to Mainstream: REN21’s Role in the Renewables Revolution

Much has changed in the energy world since we were founded in 2004, including our mouthful of a name.  We were originally called “Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century: REN21” . We started using “REN21 – Renewables Now” in 2019, to reflect greater urgency, ambition, and the need to move to a renewables-based world well before the end of the century.  

Our mission remains constant. At a practical level, we exist to facilitate policy development, knowledge exchange, and joint action towards a rapid global transition to renewable energy. At a more fundamental level, we are about creating the optimal conditions for change. 

Fossil fuels have defined the “norm” in energy production for centuries. So much so that anything else was once called “Alternative Energy.” Part of our job is to break the old patterns not only of how we consume, but also how we talk and think about energy. Our job is to make renewables the backbone of our economies and societies. 

That mission wasn’t born solely of the climate emergency. In the space between the 2002 Earth Summit and the renewables 2004 conference, renewable energy came to be seen not only as a path with environmental and health benefits, but as a way to improve socio-economic development, strengthen democracies, and provide energy security for more people in more parts of the world. Renewables are more than just an energy solution, they can help us build stronger and fairer economies and societies. 

Which brings us to our second constant: the inclusiveness of our work. REN21 is the only global renewable energy community, a “network of networks” which brings together players from science, academia, government, non-governmental organisations and industry. The multistakeholder approach is an essential part of who we are, how we work, and how we govern ourselves. It’s admittedly messy, but it creates the strongest basis for shifting to renewables: common ground. It acknowledges that while we’re all looking at the same thing, we are seeing it from different perspectives. REN21 is where bridges between those differing perspectives get built. 

We believe in the power of the many, and the many empowered by knowledge. The reports we create and the research we share is crowd-sourced, crowd-owned, and crowd-used. Our facts are peer-reviewed. Our voice is trusted. It’s not always just about the quality of the data – it’s about the integrity of the messenger. We’re known to be a neutral data and knowledge broker, connector and facilitator. In an energy sphere that still operates very much in silos, REN21 reaches outside the renewable energy bubble to build alliances with a plurality of actors, each with their own priorities and interests, and takes a systems thinking approach to everything we do.   

Key to the success of renewable expansion over the last 20 years has been the work the network has done to simply make the renewable choice visible to decision makers.  When we published the first REN21 Renewables Global Status Report, the primary source for energy information was the International Energy Agency. At the time, it seemed to think renewables were hardly worth mentioning. Capacity was underreported, as the International Energy Agency’s reports were built on member countries’ official statistics, and projects which the industry and NGOs were paying close attention to were overlooked. REN21 tapped into the small community of people active on the forefront of renewables to consolidate existing information, and as that community grew and grew, worked to continuously improve, deepen, and broaden it.

Today that data helps us counter misinformation and build and strengthen the case for renewable energy globally. We use it to transform complex information into compelling, evidence-based narratives that can convince decision makers, inspire stakeholders, and mobilise efforts to overcome barriers. 

It takes more than data. Visibility also requires creating the space for renewables in the public discourse and specialised discussions. Over the years we helped shift a number of unhelpful conversations, moving away from “alternative energy” to “new renewables” – excluding large hydro – to “modern renewables” including large-scale hydro, but excluding traditional biomass. From focusing strictly on electricity to all energy. From a narrow focus on energy supply to the wider perspective of energy systems. Perhaps most importantly, we stopped talking about renewable energy as a beneficial bolt-on, but as the centre of economies and societies, and a fundamentally fairer way to fuel a planet. 

By highlighting the potential  of renewable energy as a key driver of economic development, we connected causes in a way that made all of them stronger, and created a space where everyone, including unusual voices, have an equal say in shaping energy debates. It’s a part of a wider effort to drive global renewable energy leadership by breaking down silos, creating new synergies and empowering players across regions, sectors, and industries to collectively influence decision makers. 

A part of creating the optimal conditions for change is telling the right stories. We’ve told stories that have dispelled shadows and shaped new perceptions. Stories of how mini-grids (which were unheard of in 2002) would become game changers in the global South; of how the need for nuclear or fossil fuel “baseload” was a myth; and how globally, the socioeconomic benefits of the transition will outweigh the costs. We transformed the conversation around biomass by distinguishing traditional biomass and sustainable biomass, shutting down a dangerous loophole. 

Through it all, we’ve continued to question the status quo and ask uncomfortable questions in a safe space which is designed for honest discussion rather than political posturing. 

It would be interesting to chart the number of media mentions, cultural references, and the amount of advertising spends on renewables over the last two decades to see how 2004 compares to today. But I think we all have a pretty good guess at what that graph would look like. 

Global perceptions of renewable energy have shifted deeply in our 20 years, and the work of REN21 and our partners have been a big driver of that. In 2004, the potential of renewable energy was not widely acknowledged and hadn’t been demonstrated in practice. REN21 empowered champions and thought leaders who fundamentally changed the game. Since 2004, our diverse community of over 4,000 changemakers, scientists, experts from government and non-governmental organisations, industry and citizens have shared resources, amplified peer-reviewed and crowdsourced data, shaped debates, and accelerated efficient, rapid, sustainable solutions. 

We provided the platform and direction, but it’s the network that turns our collective ambitions into collective action and delivers the actual results.  

Twenty years of continuous technological advances, plummeting costs and increased investments mean that renewables are no longer imagined as a choice for the future – they are proving in practice to be the best choice here and now. 

Sometime in the hopefully near future, renewable energy will be the norm, and it will seem profoundly weird that it was once called “alternative.” The transition from fossil fuels will be looked upon as an obvious, no-brainer decision by a rational world. That’s just the nature of big change. People forget that “common sense” evolves, and what seems insane in hindsight required fierce effort to overcome when that insanity was the accepted norm. History will inevitably do a disservice to everyone who struggled, sacrificed, and worked hard for the energy transition. Because the phase out of fossil fuels will one day look like the simple, inevitable triumph of common sense.  And come that day, REN21 can happily close up shop, and our amazing network of partners can move on. Let history do its disservice. As long as we collectively get the job done. 


This is one in a series of stories we will be telling in 2024 to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of REN21. Got an anecdote, a picture, a memory, a story you’d like to share? Know a colleague who does? We would welcome hearing from you:

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