IRENA Politics May “Taint” Agency, Advocates Say

Windmill, nuclear reactorAdvocates of the International Renewable Energy Agency, the first multi-government body to focus exclusively on the global development of renewable energy sources, worry that competition among member countries to host the agency may detract from its core mission.

The agency, known commonly as IRENA, has quickly gained recognition since its launch in January, with the endorsement of more than 100 countries. The United States, United Kingdom, and Australia have yet to officially sign on but are expected to announce their support at a summit next week in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

The meeting will decide where IRENA will be headquartered and who will serve as its first director-general - issues that have already sparked controversy.

Competing host countries are facing accusations of attracting votes with political favors such as military support or investments in non-renewable energy sources. These concerns are prompting clean energy advocates to mobilize their supporters to demand that international politics not interfere with IRENA's agenda.

"The reason we want IRENA is because the existing organizations are too much involved in the interests of the fossil fuel or nuclear sector.... We need an independent authority," said Stefan Gsänger, secretary general of the World Wind Energy Association. "If there is a chance from the beginning that IRENA is bound to these interests, [the agency] might be at the end useless or even detrimental."

IRENA was created to provide advice on renewable energy policy, capacity building, and technology transfer to governments worldwide. Housing the agency would likely boost the selected city's economy with an increased flow of diplomats and energy leaders. The chosen country would also be able to market itself as an environmentally conscious supporter of renewable energy.

Germany, Austria, Denmark, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have all offered to host the agency. The competition has escalated in recent weeks with an intense lobbying campaign.

The UAE, which nominated to host the headquarters in Abu Dhabi, is running a public relations website and actively requesting political leaders to support its candidacy. The country committed $22 million of annual support for IRENA through 2015. In addition, the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development has offered $50 million in annual loans to finance renewable energy projects in developing countries.

Locating IRENA in Abu Dhabi has gained support from former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who praised the oil-exporting country's investments in renewable energy. The UAE is developing the world's first carbon-neutral city, known as Masdar City.

"Locating IRENA in the developing world would send a powerful signal that all nations must participate in the transition to a sustainable future," Blair said during a recent trip to Abu Dhabi, according to Gulf News.

Some renewable energy advocates, while praising UAE efforts to develop alternative energy sources, oppose locating the headquarters in a country powered nearly entirely by natural gas and oil. Abu Dhabi plans to rely on renewable energy sources for 5-7 percent of its electricity by 2020.

The other leading city, Bonn, has also faced criticism. Those who oppose the former West German capital say that the city wants to host IRENA mainly to fill government buildings that were abandoned when the capital was relocated to Berlin.

But like the other nominated cities - Vienna and Copenhagen - Bonn generates a greater share of its electricity from renewable resources than Abu Dhabi. The contending European countries also support renewable energy through their foreign-aid budgets.

Dörte Fouquet, director of the European Renewable Energy Federation, a lobbying group for independent electricity producers, favors locating the IRENA headquarters in a city that has been a longstanding example of renewable energy.

"[Abu Dhabi's] per capita energy consumption is among the highest in the world," Fouquet said. "On the other hand, they just started with renewable energy."

In addition, Fouquet criticized the UAE for its human rights record and its recent partnerships with nuclear-promoting countries.

The UAE reached agreements last month with the United States and France to develop several nuclear reactors to meet the country's expected 40,000 megawatts of additional electricity demand by 2017. France also opened its first Persian Gulf military base last month in Abu Dhabi.

Eric Martinot, lead author of the REN21 Renewable Energy Global Status Report and a Worldwatch Institute senior fellow, said that if Abu Dhabi is selected as the IRENA headquarters, these deals would create a "nuclear-tainted" IRENA.

"UAE has expressed its intentions to rapidly become a ‘model' for promoting nuclear power," Martinot wrote in an open letter to renewable energy supporters. "[Choosing Abu Dhabi] raises the question of whether IRENA will be an effective change agent for renewables (i.e. promoting renewables instead of nuclear power), or will be merely an appendage to a nuclear agenda."*

The location of IRENA would not necessarily determine the agency's fate. Hans Jørgen Koch, the Danish nominee to serve as director-general, said that the chosen headquarters would be unlikely to "taint" the agency.

"If IRENA is based in Abu Dhabi, it does not give Abu Dhabi any right to decide whether nuclear is included in IRENA," said Koch, who formerly directed the International Energy Agency's renewable energy office.

Debate over where IRENA should be centered is distracting renewable energy advocates from IRENA's core mission, said Mike Eckhart, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy.

Instead of choosing one location, Eckhart recommends that IRENA become a "centerless" organization based in 5-10 regional headquarters. The regional hubs would work with colleges and universities to create educational courses based on that region's renewable energy supplies.

"Unlike oil, which has a world oil market and a single International Energy Agency, the nature of renewable energy is that there are no global answers, only regional and local answers," Eckhart said.

But a decentralized structure may be too complicated to manage, said Arthuros Zervos, the Greek nominee to serve as IRENA's director general. For IRENA to develop into a global energy authority such as the IEA or International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the agency should begin with a central headquarters, he said.

"When [IRENA] is running for several years, starting regional offices, or whatever you want to call it, yes, I could see it would be helpful," said Zervos, who chairs the Global Wind Energy Council. "[But] starting as a decentralized structure, I do not agree at all."

Eckhart has also proposed that the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting not vote on a headquarters at all. A vote should take place when more countries officially join IRENA, he said.

"We're going to have additional members joining who will have no choice in director-general or its location. That's extremely inappropriate to me," Eckhart said.

The IRENA founding treaty had been signed by 108 countries as of Tuesday. The treaty becomes effective when 25 countries ratify the agreement.

The United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Malta have announced their intent to sign the treaty, according to a German delegation report submitted to the Council of the European Union earlier this month.

* Eric Martinot's comments do not reflect the views of the Worldwatch Institute, nor any organization with which he is affiliated.

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

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