75 Countries Sign onto New Clean Energy Agency

Wind turbineThe International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the first multinational agency focused solely on spreading clean energy across the globe, officially launched this week.

The expectations are that the agency will help governments and private industry to expand renewable energy installments throughout the industrialized world, where investments are already on the rise, while also assist the developing world acquire the expertise to establish its own clean energy industries.

"IRENA will help to remove the many obstacles which up to now have delayed the rapid expansion of renewables," said Sigmar Gabriel, the German federal environment minister, in a conference address [PDF]. "The market is still distorted by subsidies for conventional energies, technological know-how is inadequate, information is not always correct."

More than 120 delegates attended the IRENA founding conference in Bonn on Monday, and 75 nations signed the agency's treaty, an organizer said.

Originally the initiative of Germany, Spain, and Denmark, IRENA now includes countries such as France, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Kenya. The founding treaty becomes effective once it is ratified by 25 countries.

Conference participation exceeded the founders' expectations, but many of the world's largest industrialized countries have not signed the treaty, most notably the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, China, India, and Australia. But these countries may still join after the agency further develops, observers said. 

"We are certainly supportive and are interested in joining, but we need to make sure that what we're joining has the right focus," according to an unnamed U.K. Department for Energy and Climate Change official, quoted in The Guardian. "There needs to be more focus on the deployment of renewables rather than just talking policy and issuing papers. And there needs to be a wider membership."

The German government requested that the United States play a larger role in the conference, but the country so far remains an observer, according to the U.S. State Department. "We will continue to examine and review all available mechanisms to promote renewable energy," a spokesman told Worldwatch.

An observer from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin served as the U.S. representative to the conference, according to the American Council on Renewable Energy, which attended the meeting as an IRENA supporter.

Conference attendees yesterday discussed the criteria and procedure for selecting IRENA's permanent headquarters and its first director general, which members will vote on in June. So far, Germany, Austria, and the UAE have applied to host the agency.

UAE, an oil exporting country, said it joined IRENA to provide energy expertise to the renewable energy sector and broaden support for its Masdar City project - a plan to create an entirely carbon-neutral, zero-waste city.

"The Abu Dhabi leadership formed Masdar because they saw that the renewable energy sector was suffering from fragmentation and a lack of willing partners focusing on the long term goal," said Sultan Al Jaber, Masdar's chief executive officer, in a press release. "IRENA is exactly what the world needs to drive forward the sector, but, we must ensure that it is a place of action."

Although other bodies such as the United Nations and International Energy Agency also focus on expanding renewable energy installments, IRENA is the first global agency dedicated to this cause alone.

"[IRENA] will focus more resources on renewable energies than any other organization to date. But others need not worry - there is more than enough work for everyone," Gabriel said. "IRENA will cooperate with other organizations and institutions to exploit synergies."

Although the global credit crunch has slowed many renewable energy investments, wind, solar, and geothermal industries expanded worldwide last year.

About 12,000 megawatts of wind power capacity were installed in 2008 alone, bringing the global total to 106,100 megawatts, according to the World Wind Energy Association. In addition, 9,740 megawatts of cumulative solar photovoltaic (PV) systems and at least 6,000 megawatts of geothermal energy projects have been installed, according to the Worldwatch Institute and U.N. Environment Programme, respectively.

Global efforts to develop a renewable energy agency predate the industry's recent popularity, however. Herman Scheer, a Social Democratic member of the German Parliament and chair of the World Council for Renewable Energy, proposed an International Solar Energy Agency in 1990. He was able to convince Germany to commit to IRENA in 2006.

"The long road from the start of the initiative to the establishment of IRENA shows that forward-looking ideas are not always sufficient. Persistency and perseverance are equally important," said Scheer, who is also president of the European Association for Renewable Energy (EUROSOLAR), in a press release. "After 19 years of preparations, we cannot afford to lose any more time."

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

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