Starting yesterday, a new international organization dedicated to the “rapid development and deployment of renewable energy worldwide” officially powered up. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) will function much like the International Energy Agency (IEA): collecting and analyzing statistics, providing policy suggestions, facilitating partnerships and financing across countries, promoting research and development, and creating technical codes and standards—but only for renewable energy. Still, significant challenges await the fledgling agency if it hopes to promote renewable energy worldwide. An earlier attempt at an international hydrogen fuel agency provides a cautionary example.
One question is what counts as renewable. The agency’s website is filled with descriptions and pictures of wind turbines, solar panels, and even waste-to-biogas plants in China. While no universal definition of “renewable energy” exists, IRENA has made clear what it won’t address—nuclear is out, but so is energy efficiency.
As Frauke Theis reported earlier in this blog, the IEA sees a big place for technologies like nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS) in reducing greenhouse gas pollution. Not so IRENA. Before the Copenhagen climate negotiations, IRENA issued a statement condemning the IEA’s support for nuclear and CCS in carbon markets. Energy efficiency receives much better treatment, at least gaining mention in the agency’s 2010 Work Programme where nuclear does not, but it is clear that the focus will be on promoting electricity production from renewable energy, and not on energy savings.
The agency’s dependence on entirely voluntary contributions from member countries is another difficult issue. Even if all expected contributions come in, IRENA’s US$13.7 million budget for 2010 will relegate its activities to largely facilitating interactions among member states and collecting statistics, though a US$3 million research and development center will open in Bonn, with these extra costs paid by the German government.
Ensuring sufficient membership to foster partnerships around the globe remains another challenge. Despite support from countries like Germany and the United Arab Emirates (the agency is headquartered in Abu Dhabi), only 29 of the 148 countries (plus the European Union) that signed its operating statute have actually ratified it. Most ratifying nations, like Eritrea, Mongolia, and the Maldives, have little cash to spare.
For the moment, that leaves the costs and operations of the agency to only a handful of the ratifying countries and the agency’s expected staff of 41, many of whom have only just been offered positions. Still, considering that nations only began talking about a renewable energy organization in April of 2008, and only began signing IRENA’s statute in January of 2009, prospects for larger international support are good. Beyond filling three to five management positions, no further hiring plans currently exist.
Let’s hope so, since the formation of an earlier organization, the International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy (IPHE), shows the limits of what a small international agency can do. Formed in 2003 by the U.S. government, the IPHE (which I helped manage from 2006-2007) was designed to catalyze the development of an economy fueled by hydrogen. Supported by 17 of some of the most technologically developed nations, and headquartered inside the U.S. Department of Energy, the organization made some notable progress on the development of international safety and operational standards for hydrogen vehicle and fuel cell use. Otherwise, though, it mostly sponsored demonstration projects and technical workshops in member countries, limited by member governments’ low prioritization of hydrogen development, no independent staff, and slow expansion of technologically viable and profitable commercial applications.
In response, activist groups called it a delaying tactic by the Bush Administration to avoid immediate action on climate change and renewable energy development, since hydrogen infrastructure and vehicles were expected to take decades to develop, even under the U.S. government’s most ambitious scenario.
A robust hydrogen delivery infrastructure, meanwhile, remains far off, let alone hydrogen vehicles or widespread fuel cell use for home power. Perhaps in recognition of this, or of the Obama Administration’s shift away from hydrogen development in favor of other renewable technologies, the IPHE recently renamed itself the International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy (still abbreviated IPHE). Management of the IPHE moved to the Canadian government in late 2007, followed by Germany in December 2009. IRENA doesn’t mention either hydrogen or fuel cells on its website, so perhaps the IPHE still has a raison d’etre.
Still, given its broader scope of energy sources, its rapidly growing membership, and increased attention from countries like the United States on a wide range of renewable energy technologies and climate change mitigation, IRENA’s future looks brighter than the IPHE’s, and it may not be long before this little agency starts to shine.