Introduction to standards

The world is now more open to trade through global commerce, global manufacturing, advanced communications and more efficient distribution of goods and services. This has led to increasing inter-governmental collaboration in clean energy technology R&D, promotion and deployment. Standards, certification and a harmonised approach to renewable energy are increasingly recognised as vital to develop and increase the uptake, awareness and confidence in the market for such technologies.

'Technologies that fail due to poor quality or poor execution create a negative association in the minds of consumers and damage the market'; this is the opening line of the chapter on standards in the United Nations Foundation report, 'Energy Access Practitioner Network: Towards achieving universal energy access by 2030 (PDF)'.

Well written standards have an important role to play in supporting communication and understanding, trade and commerce, legislation and regulation, environmental protection, enhanced resource efficiency and confidence in the products and services provided. However, standards can also act as barriers if they are written poorly, are biased in favour of one set of stakeholders’ requirements, or if they restrict the ability to innovate or deploy and trade the technologies or services.

As standards are usually established through consensus on a broad stakeholder basis, in some cases they may only meet minimum quantitative or qualitative thresholds (e.g., quality, performance and sometimes safety); (Ottinger, R.L., Experience with Promotion of Renewable Energy: Successes and Lessons Learned – Parliamentarian Forum on Energy Legislation and Sustainable Development, Cape Town, South Africa). However, what are considered minimum thresholds in one region or sector may be higher or lower for another.

It is therefore difficult to establish appropriate global standards that meet the push-and-pull of different stakeholder needs. This is especially true if the engagement process has been limited to a few individuals or stakeholder groups.

Therefore, how well standards are integrated into renewable energy activities across different sectors is of critical importance. It is also important to note that standards themselves may or may not be adhered to, and if no certification, verification or auditing process is in place, it may be difficult to determine if they have made any significant impact.

Much of the discussions in the political arena about standards appear to be on setting minimum requirements, or “a standard”, or in some cases avoiding setting minimum requirements. These requirements are possibly more effectively described as “threshold values or criteria” (for further discussion and examples of how threshold values have been used, see: How standards are used in IRENA’s international standardisation report).

By setting threshold values or criteria, a product’s performance, an organisation’s service(s), amounts of energy used and hence energy saved, carbon emissions or other metrics can be measured and evaluated over time. Many standards will incorporate methods for determining a quantitative or qualitative threshold value.

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