Ill Wind Blows for IRENA

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) is nearly two years old, yet it still faces institutional issues. On October 21, the first Director General of the agency, Hélène Pélosse, quit her position.

After Pélosse's departure, Adnan Amin will lead IRENA until the Agency's First Assembly in April 2011. – Image courtesy of IRENA.

Pélosse, former deputy head of staff in the Office of the French Minister for Ecology, has long worked on climate and energy issues. Before joining IRENA, she took part in international climate negotiations and helped develop the European climate and energy package. (Read Worldwatch’s June 2009 interview with Pélosse.) Now, she leaves IRENA in a storm of publicity. In the French newspaper Le Monde, she declared that the agency’s host country, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), had asked for her resignation.

Yet it started all nicely. IRENA was founded in January 2009 to give renewable energy a voice at the international level. It began as the initiative of a group of European countries, including Germany, Spain, and Denmark, but delegations from 148 countries around the world have since adopted the agency’s work program. IRENA’s key goal, as formulated in its statute, is promoting “the widespread and increased adoption and the sustainable use of all forms of renewable energy.”

Today, according to Pélosse, the UAE wields too much power over IRENA, throwing the agency’s independence in doubt. Much of the trouble that IRENA encounters today, she said, relates to its location in a country that is not a democracy. Certain countries close to the UAE, she claims, do not want to see an influential, independent organization for renewables emerge and would rather see the sector remain within the competence of the International Energy Agency (IEA). These countries—Pélosse mentioned the United States, Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom—have therefore sought to prevent IRENA from working efficiently. Pélosse also claims that agency staff are not afforded the usual guarantees of individual liberty that international officials receive.

Several Worldwatch sources that are involved closely with IRENA (and who wish to remain anonymous) argue that Pélosse’s departure has less to do with UAE’s fitness to host the agency than with management and personal issues that have escalated since autumn 2009. The division of tasks between IRENA’s headquarters in Abu Dhabi and the agency’s Innovation and Technology Center in Bonn, Germany, for instance, was an important issue that Pélosse failed to move on proactively. Instead, they say, the UAE and Germany had to take the lead in creating terms of agreement for the division of work. IRENA also faced looming financial issues: as some member states took more time to deliver their contributions than originally agreed (a common problem facing international organizations), there are claims that the agency’s leadership had trouble managing IRENA’s budget.

To make matters worse for IRENA, Pélosse’s departure takes place as the construction of Masdar City—UAE’s attempt at a zero-carbon metropolis (where IRENA is eventually to be located) faces significant delays. More importantly, instead of being a self-powered, fully sustainable community as planned, Masdar will have to purchase part of its electricity from outside. This presents a major blow to UAE’s great ambition to develop clean energy to diversify its energy mix.

This is all disappointing news for renewables proponents worldwide. Renewable energy has enjoyed rapid growth in recent years: according to Worldwatch and REN21, renewables power capacity (excluding large hydro) increased 45 percent in only two years (2007–09). However, renewables are still often underprivileged and discriminated against, hindering the swifter deployment that is needed to address the world’s environmental, economic, and security needs. Governments’ massive support for fossil fuels still vastly outweighs the funding going to renewable energy. The IEA reports that subsidies for fossil fuel consumption totaled US$557 billion in 2008, about 12 times those for renewable energy.

To compete with traditional fuels and reach their huge potential, renewables need a strong voice at the international level more than ever. IRENA was designed to help support renewables by giving them more attention and by facilitating global access to relevant information, such as technical and economic tools, data about resource potentials, and examples of best practices. Managerial turnover in conflict with key partners is not a promising development for a young international organization that needs momentum and credibility.

In April 2011, IRENA will hold its first Assembly, during which a new Director General will be elected. Until then, Kenyan Adnan Amin will temporarily lead the agency. As IRENA faces a second chance to get back on track, let’s hope that in 2011 more favorable winds will blow!

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