Published online 30 January 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.70
Updated online: 30 January 2009

News: Briefing

Clean-energy agency recruits its founding members

Nations have begun to hammer out the mandate for the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Wind farmRenewable energy — lost without its own agency?Getty

Earlier this week, 75 countries banded together to form the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) as a way to promote clean-energy development around the globe. Nature News takes a look at what the agency hopes to accomplish.

What would IRENA do?

Member states are still debating exactly how the organization will work, but its duties could include coordinating information and research on renewable-energy markets and promoting policies that will enable these technologies to spread.

The organization is planning to meet again in June, in which more of these basic questions will be hammered out. But the first order of duty is getting member states to ratify the founding treaty to create IRENA, which could occur as early as this year.

Who joined and how big will the organization be?

Although 120 countries were represented at the founding conference in Bonn, Germany, on 26 January, many of them elected not to become founding members. The current list of signatories includes Spain, Denmark, France, Portugal and the Scandinavian countries as well as various countries from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and southern and central America. Right now IRENA is operating on donations, but member states have so far committed US$25 million a year once the founding treaty enters into force.

Notably missing from the current list are the United States, the United Kingdom, China, India and Brazil. The administration of former US President George W. Bush did not support the proposal, but Barack Obama's crew is thought to be more amenable to the idea. Whether and when these and other countries will join is an open question, but one thing is clear: the broader the support, the more potential there is for IRENA to accomplish its goals.

We have already got the International Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Is a separate organization needed?

Advocates argue that the International Energy Agency is too focused on fossil fuels, particularly oil. And indeed, the agency was founded in 1974, largely in response to the Arab oil embargo a year earlier, as a way to coordinate energy statistics and bolster energy security in some of the major energy economies. But fossil fuels and alternative energies are all bound together into one increasingly globalized energy market, with prices and trends in one sector affecting those in all the others.

The International Energy Agency has numerous renewable-energy experts and is busy studying the entire system. But IRENA's supporters say renewable energies may get overlooked without an organisation specifically dedicated to them.

The fact that nuclear energy has its own organization is cited as evidence that a similar body should be focusing entirely on renewable energy. It is certainly a valid point. However, atomic energy is different in that the spread of advanced nuclear technologies pose unique hazards if they wind up in the hands of the wrong people. Given the scale of the potential pitfalls, it is fairly easy to make a case for maintaining a crew of nuclear experts who can monitor the market and look for illicit activities.

Where did the idea originate?

IRENA is the brainchild of Hermann Scheer, a German parliamentarian and one of the country's leading advocates for renewable energy. Scheer is the president of EUROSOLAR, the European association for renewable energy, based in Germany, and chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy. He proposed the idea in 1990 and has been pushing to make it a reality ever since.

The idea made it into the halls of the German parliament in 2002, when the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party adopted IRENA as part of their energy platforms. It plugged along until 2007, when the German government took up the idea and began bilateral talks with various nations in an effort to get it off the ground. Those talks culminated in two conferences last year, ultimately leading to the founding conference on 26 January this year.

How soon will the agency be up and running?

Organizers hope to complete the ratification process as early as this year, and are planning the first formal congress in 2010. There member states will adopt bylaws and appoint a director-general to lead the organization. By then, the organisation's mission should be clearer. But the agency will still have to build up its staff before it can really get down to business. 

Updated:

Since the publication of this article, the Indian Parliament has decided in favour of joining IRENA.

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