Promise of New Renewable Energy Agency in Peril?

After three decades of resistance, the first and only intergovernmental agency to focus solely on renewable energy development is finally ready to launch on July 1st.
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After three decades of resistance, the first and only intergovernmental agency to focus solely on renewable energy development is finally ready to launch on July 1st.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) , has attracted nearly 100 member countries, including most European countries, many developing countries, and rapidly emerging economies like India. The United States, United Kingdom, and China are also expected to join by the end of the month.

IRENA was founded with one goal in mind -- to set the foundations for a global economy fully powered by renewable energy sources. Such an energy shift will solve a multitude of problems -- not just climate change.

For a century, big energy companies have promised to supply the world with enough power through coal, oil gas and uranium. They have not been successful. Today close to 1/3 of the world's population can't access the power needed to cook, keep cool or read a book at night, wars are being fought over dwindling oil and gas reserves, and geo-political tensions from nuclear proliferation are on the rise. IRENA's goal is to help governments implement a better solution: renewable energy.

"Scientists have shown time and time again that renewable energy can satisfy the world's entire energy needs. What all these studies have in common is that they get systematically ignored in most discussions about energy. IRENA will change this." said Dr. Herman Scheer, pioneer of IRENA, and member of the German Parliament.

By helping countries with policy design, technology transfer, and training, IRENA can fill knowledge gaps and give governments the right tools to bring about a renewable energy shift.

The Nuclear Threat to IRENA

But IRENA supporters fear that nuclear interests are actively trying to undermine the agency. On June 29th members will meet in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt to elect a Director General and decide which country will host the agency's headquarters.

Currently, an alliance between France and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is taking shape. French ministerial official Helene Pelosse is proposed as one candidate for IRENA'S Director General, and the UAE is eager to host IRENA's headquarters in its capital Abu Dhabi, a move that IRENA advocates say would cause the agency to become "nuclear tainted."

France is a long-time advocate of nuclear power, and depends on it for nearly 80 percent of the country's electricity generation. The Country is also one of the world's largest suppliers of nuclear technology and atomic expertise. In just over a year, French President Nicholas Sarkozy has signed multi-billion dollar nuclear deals with Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The French use of the term "low-carbon technology" at a recent IRENA meeting also has supporters worried that under their leadership the agency will become an "International Low-Carbon Agency," supporting both renewables and nuclear options together.

Sending the Wrong Message?

Both France and the United States have shown their support for the UAE bid to headquarter IRENA in Abu-Dhabi. In the meantime, both Governments are actively engaged in the signing of new nuclear power cooperation agreements with the Emirate's.

"An IRENA located in Abu Dhabi under such circumstances would be "nuclear tainted" because the negotiating process used to select a host country would be based on support for nuclear power," said Dr. Eric Martinot, an international expert on renewable markets and policies and a former World Bank expert.

The UAE has set a 7% future target for renewable energy and intends to build Masdar, a carbon-neutral city powered by renewable energy. But, instead of extending their vast solar potential to power the rest of the UAE, the Emirates are looking to build new nuclear plants. They claim that development of renewable energies could only supply a small portion of its energy needs.

"Are the original goals of IRENA being co-opted so that renewables become a mere appendage to a nuclear agenda -- 'sprinkling some renewables on top of our nuclear power?'" asked Martinot.

Renewable Energy Takes Imagination

The pervasive argument that renewable energy is too small scale and can only make modest contribution is widespread and all too common. But one needs only to look at countries like Germany, Denmark, and Spain to see that an energy shift without nuclear is possible.

Right now Germany -- whose solar wind and hydro resources are a fraction of those available in other countries -- remains the world's leader in renewable energy production and exports. Why? Because the Germans have had the courage, determination, and political will to think outside the box.

Visionaries: Germany and Denmark

Many IRENA supporters believe that the most balanced and strategic option to host and lead the agency are Bonn, Germany and Hans Jørgen Koch, Denmark's leading renewable energy policy expert for the last three decades.

Both countries have laws against building new nuclear power plants. Instead, they are focused on producing more renewable energy by implementing effective policies such as feed-in tariffs.

Germany has created close to 300,000 new jobs from renewable energy, and is officially doubling its renewable share of energy production from 15% in 2008 to 30% by 2020, four times more than the UAE's target. They also committed to a minimum of $2.5 billion Euro's to support renewable energy production in developing countries far surpassing the $50 million Abu-Dhabi has proposed.

This is the kind of bold thinking and confidence in renewable energy that IRENA must encourage. The choice of Abu-Dhabi may be a political move for those who see the location of IRENA as an opportunity to expand nuclear or military interests in the Middle East, but it will not serve the promise of IRENA.

It was just a century ago when only 8% of American homes had electricity. By 1950 almost every American and millions around the world has access to power. We've walked the moon, invented the internet, and built a global economy. There is no reason we cannot shift to a renewable energy future. Let's make sure we create an IRENA to do just that.

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