Europeans Form Renewable Energy Agency

solar thermal dishA consortium of European governments is developing the world's first International Renewable Energy Agency.

The agency, known as IRENA, will serve as a global cheerleader for clean energy. It plans to offer technical, financial, and policy advice for governments worldwide, according to a joint announcement from Germany, Spain, and Denmark - the project's leaders.

Renewable energy is on the rise worldwide as governments attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create domestic energy sources. Despite a variety of international organizations that are helping with the clean energy transition, IRENA's leaders said no single agency addresses the local, national, and international needs of both developed and developing nations.

"IRENA aims to become the main driving force in promoting a swift transition towards the extensive and sustainable use of renewable energy worldwide," said Hermann Scheer, general chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy and a champion for the agency since 1990, in a prepared statement. "There exist international agencies for fossil and nuclear energies, but none for renewables. IRENA will close this gap."

Scheer, a Social Democratic member of the German Parliament, led his government to commit to IRENA's creation in 2006 - arguing that it was a necessary balance to the International Atomic Energy Agency created in the 1950s.

The international organizations that currently focus on renewable energy include the International Energy Agency (IEA),  World Bank, Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21), Renewable Energy and Energy Efficient Partnership (REEEP), and several United Nations agencies.

Despite the large number of clean energy organizations and networks, most energy funding supports the fossil fuel industries, IRENA's founders say. Development aid leaders often cite the higher initial cost of technologies such as wind or solar in their decision to fund cheaper energy sources. Fossil fuel energy such as coal-fired power plants, however, warms the climate and can damage local environments.

"While conventional energies enjoy political privilege, including large amounts of public money for research and development, military protection of the supply chain, and $300 billion in global annual subsidies, renewable energies are discriminated against," said Bianca Jagger, chair of the World Future Council, at a meeting of IRENA organizers in April. "The IEA only recently showed interest in renewable energy sources. Other existing networks have no mandate to advise governments on the accelerated introduction of renewable energy."

Binu Parthan, deputy director of programs for REEEP, said IRENA's global focus would be helpful for renewable energy development. But he was doubtful whether the agency could address the challenges of technology transfer or funding shortfalls all on its own. "One suggestion to IRENA  is rather than create an entire new organization, it could serve as an umbrella of sorts, bringing together the work of those other institutions."

Parthan added that an organization focused solely on renewable energy may further marginalize discussions on energy efficiency. "Having an organization looking only at renewable energy, the supply side, is not optimal. We need to look at energy efficiency on the demand side, as well," he said. "That needs to be brought into the picture."

At a conference in Madrid last month, IRENA's 51 participating nations agreed that the agency's first projects would be presented in January, at the formal launch of IRENA. In the meantime, details such as the organization's headquarters, leadership, and funding still need to be finalized.

The involved nations currently include nearly all of Europe as well as Australia, Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates.

In the past year, global renewable energy sources have increased dramatically. More than 250 gigawatts of capacity, excluding large hydropower, exists globally. Clean energy investments surpassed $148 billion in 2007, a 60 percent increase from 2006, according to the U.N. Environment Programme.

Several countries in charge of the IRENA initiative, including Germany and Denmark, are home to some of the world's leading producers of renewable energy technologies.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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