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Iran's Renewable Future?

Iran's capitol, Tehran.

The Middle East is changing.

Major events such as the Arab Spring, the U.S. draw down of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the overthrow of several key figures have caused massive cultural and political shifts in the region over the past few years.

One country trying to change its image on the world stage to varying degrees of success is Iran. Under the presidency of ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) relations with the West were constantly under serious strain. His frequently aggressive anti-Western rhetoric made relations between the U.S. and Iran particularly tumultuous. With the election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013, the tensions between the U.S. and Iran softened a bit, as Rouhani went on a “charm offensive,” reaching out to the understandably skeptical Western world.

Rouhani even spoke to President Barack Obama over the phone regarding Iran’s nuclear program—the first time two heads-of-state from their respective countries have spoken in 30 years.

Despite these efforts and the U.S. and Iran’s potential cooperation regarding the situation in Iraq and Syria, relations remain tense between the two.

Before looking Iran’s renewable energy potential, it’s important to assess Iran’s current energy situation as a whole.

A Finite Dependence on Oil and Gas

Globally, Iran is an energy superpower, though most of its assets lie in oil and natural gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Iran holds the world’s fourth largest proven oil reserves and the second largest natural gas reserves. More than half of the country’s oil reserves lie in five massive fields and the country remains the world’s second largest OPEC producer annually despite its production falling drastically in 2012—down nearly 700 thousand barrels per day from 2011. Sanctions on the Iranian oil industry have done damage, accounting for much of its drop in production. The EIA reports the only countries with companies still operating in the energy sector in Iran are Russia and China.

In the way of renewable energy projects, Iran is still very much in the planning stages. Only 5 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from hydroelectric or other renewable sources. Instead of green initiatives, Iran has turned to nuclear energy to solve the problem of finite gas and oil reserves, drawing the ire of the Western world once again.

The refusal to give up their pursuit of nuclear energy has resulted in the aforementioned sanctions that are still in place today, though there has been movement on both sides—in the West and in Iran—to work toward a future in which they’re no longer necessary. Unfortunately, it’s not going particularly well.

A Pivot Toward a Possible Solution

Jen Alic writing for the Christian Science Monitor believes that the answer to the nuclear issue lies in renewable energy investments within Iran. She argues that despite it seeming antagonistic in nature, Iran’s nuclear program is really about finding an alternative energy. Helping Iran shift away from nuclear and toward renewable would “gradually remove all justification and necessity for a nuclear energy program.” She also argues that Iran has made it clear they wish to pursue renewable energy, citing former president Ahmadinejad’s 500 million euro allocation for renewable energy projects, as well as the Renewable Energy Organization of Iran’s $60 million budget.

Ultimately, Alic believes that renewable energy is essential to Iran’s future and it’s a smart investment for the world, as she believes it would address many problems faced in Iran’s relations with other countries.

Taking a Step Toward Energy-from-Waste

While conducting business in Iran is still a difficult proposition, one California-based company is hoping to jump start an energy-from-waste project in Iran with a $1.175 billion investment. World Eco Energy hopes to create 650 jobs in the immediate future and to generate 2,000 down the line. By burning 1,500 tons of solid waste, the project will generate roughly 250 megawatts per day. The project is expected to start in September of this year.

However, for a company with more than $1 billion dollars to invest, very little is known about World Eco Energy. Their main energy-from-waste system involves biomass and algae, though they give no specific details on the process. According to filings with the California Secretary of State, the company is approximately one year old and is listed anonymously.

The Iranian government is hoping the investment will pay off, though, claiming local companies will match the investment. If the investing works out, it could put Iran on the path to a sustainable future without nuclear energy in at least one of its energy sectors.

However, for now, it’s unclear what the future holds for Iran and renewable energy. As previously stated, the Middle East is changing and Iran appears to want to change with it. Granted, the transition will not be a rapid one as international relations are still a major problem of Iran’s, but it there does at least look to be those in the country working toward some kind of progress.

Iran’s renewable future may be coming, and it’s time to start paying attention. 

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