IRENA – Joining Forces

An initiative is in place to implement a new International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to foster global collaboration and to promote and lobby for renewable energy solutions worldwide. Jose Etcheverry and Lily Riahi explain.

In a recent international conference Dr R.K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, emphasized that international collaboration on renewable energy is a necessary, if elusive, practical solution to dismantling existing barriers to implementing renewable energy in most parts of the world. ‘I am a strong supporter of the International Renewable Energy Agency’, he stated, adding ‘IRENA is a very important development for the mitigation of greenhouse gases and sustainable development.’ Clearly, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) can be an important potential mechanism for transferring scientific information and technology to assist in the expansion of renewables in individual countries. However, negotiations regarding technology transfer have been on the agenda since its birth in 1992 and very little has been accomplished.

In addition, existing international organizations and arrangements to increase the global use of renewable energy are at best achieving small gains, and at worst delaying this imperative transition.

The task of convincing policy makers of the multiple advantages of renewable energy requires bold-thinking, ‘can do’ attitudes, and innovative global initiatives. To achieve these goals, many are advocating the creation of a new international organization charged exclusively with the task of promoting renewable energy.

Currently, the German government – in collaboration with Spain and Denmark and with the support of more than 50 other nations – has initiated a process to implement an International Renewable Energy Agency which will supply practical advice and support to both industrialized and developing countries, support them in improving regulatory frameworks and building capacity. IRENA will facilitate access to information, including reliable data on renewable potential, best practices, effective financial mechanisms and state-of-the-art technological expertise. As the global voice for renewables, it will foster collaboration, lobby worldwide for renewable energy solutions, and enhance the work of complementary agencies.

To establish such an agency at the speed required to properly address climate change and energy security imperatives, requires commitment and support by foresighted nations. A number of states have taken the lead and offered to host IRENA’s headquarters, among them Germany and Austria.

The founding conference for IRENA will take place on 26 January 2009, in Bonn, Germany. The agency is expected to start its much needed work immediately thereafter, designing and implementing its first projects. After a decision on the location of the interim headquarters and interim Director General, the new Agency will start establishing its working structures in July 2009.

Once established, IRENA could immediately facilitate practical collaboration on renewable energy policy formulation and technological advancement amongst member countries. It could also become an expanding international focal point for sharing analysis on renewable developments and resources, promoting case studies, establishing new global training networks, and providing practical guidance.

The implementation of such an agency could also help create the human resources and political conditions needed to dismantle the barriers that currently impede renewable development.

Promoting technological collaboration

Most countries have yet to fully appreciate the vast potential and diverse solutions available to them through the use of renewables.

This reality often stems from limited information exchange and awareness, prevailing structural, political and economic frameworks, and barriers and economic assumptions, plus an inability to see past the conventional system and its current ownership structures.

New energy technologies face significant cost disadvantages in comparison with incumbents, which stem not only from substantial subsidies in the past, but also direct subsidies of the order of US$300 billion yearly, according to the UNDP, and indirect subsidies through the negative external economies associated with their use.

IRENA will ensure that due consideration is given to these subsidies to level the playing field. It will also help ‘guide the search’ for solutions in various sectors towards increasing renewables and maximizing their contributions. It also plans to provide comprehensive advice on how to select, promote, and adapt technology that will be most efficient and best suited to the specific environmental, political, socio-economic and cultural conditions and needs. To achieve these goals, the Agency will have to create innovative assessment methodologies. It will also have to provide advice on how to design the best macro-economic policy framework to target fiscal incentives and legal reforms that favour sustainable energy use and production, and align institutions and regulatory frameworks to maximize local returns from renewable energy investments. This will ensure the effective capture of multiple benefits and the creation and expansion of sustainable markets. IRENA intends to facilitate technology transfer, collaboration and investment, particularly in developing countries.

Most multi-lateral agreements on technology transfer to date have relied on national legislative, administrative or policy measures for implementation, sometimes resulting in considerable gaps between intentions and resulting actions. The increasingly paralyzing demands for intellectual property rights (IPR) protection are also overshadowing the needs of developing states for technology transfer and its related means of sustainable development and poverty alleviation.

To address these shortcomings IRENA proponents suggest an innovative, collaborative focus and specialization on the unique requirements of its member countries with regard to proven best practice strategies. It may also help to reduce the burden of over-stressed bureaucracies perennially saddled with limited resources.

Expanding renewable energy in urban and rural areas

Integrating renewable energy technologies into urban communities is central to renewable energy development. States and provinces also have an important role to play as they often have jurisdiction over power generation and emissions sources. Thus it is imperative that IRENA concentrates on helping nations develop local, regional and national policy and practice frameworks that support urban transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewables. This focus can include the development of new planning and management models and decision-making frameworks suited to renewable integration. Further, such transformations demand close co-operation within and between various levels of government, a laborious process that can be expedited by IRENA.

Energy decisions affect the policies of a wide range of sub-national bureaucracies, and despite often complementary policies and interests, sub-units of governments do not always come into contact with each other, potentially resulting in conflict.

Therefore trans-governmental policy co-ordination is essential to ensure the successful implementation of renewable energy policy. IRENA could, for example, work closely with existing organizations ICLEI, Local Governments for Sustainability, to further develop training opportunities through their centres of technology excellence for local renewables and make use of ICLEI’s multi-lingual databases of comparable, accessible and transferable best practices used to transform urban areas into ‘model cities’. Such collaboration would facilitate the development of comprehensive policies that are reinforced at different levels of government. IRENA may also promote context-specific renewable energy strategies to aid policy integration between sub-units of national governments.

It is now widely accepted that most of the 1.6 billion rural people without electricity can gain at least a modicum of modern services through the development of decentralized renewables.

At present, the governments of transition or developing countries, often set modest renewables targets and thereafter follow patterns of conventional top-down development which may fail to meet the needs of the poor. IRENA can help bridge the gap between target-setting framework legislation and the more detailed instruments and integrated perspectives to address specific needs.

The Agency may also fulfil a role as a catalyst of best practice and information dissemination so that experienced staff can become involved on personnel secondments and training initiatives. This could eventually involve developing regional centres of technology excellence, based on context-specific criteria regarding education and training needs. Furthermore, the Agency can work with development organizations, to integrate regional centres into networks of relevant professional associations and lending banks.

Regional centres can be particularly useful in overcoming context-specific cultural barriers preventing implementation. In particular, IRENA should ensure that close attention is paid to the needs and concerns of women as this has been shown to improve equality and local conditions and the effectiveness and sustainability of projects.

Training needs and opportunities

Many of the countries that support IRENA, such as Germany, Spain and Denmark, have high quality training facilities and research centres that can be tapped by IRENA to play crucial roles in the development of new local capacity and know-how networks. ‘Train the trainers’ initiatives should become a crucial component of IRENA’s work to ensure that renewable energy skills are acquired which can thereafter be widely disseminated at the local level.

The demands on efficient knowledge transfer are enormous. It requires a well-organized international effort to increase local and regional information access and to ensure that well-recognized processes of evaluation are applied consistently to improve renewable energy development.

IRENA proponents aim to fill a huge international gap by creating a lean and efficient agency focused solely on maximizing the global adoption of renewable energy through practical strategies. Having said that, evaluating the best organizational options and analysing how to achieve the active participation and support of NGOs, renewable energy advocates, entrepreneurs, industry, academics and civil society, still represents a key challenge. If IRENA is to succeed, special attention will have to be devoted to its staff members, who must be pragmatic people with direct renewable energy experience. Most importantly, such posts should only be allocated to collaborative individuals that, in addition to expertise, have passion and a proven commitment to ensure that our world becomes fully powered by renewable energy as soon as humanly possible.

José Etcheverry is an assistant professor at York University, Toronto, Canada and president of the Canadian Renewable Energy Alliance. Lily Riahi is currently finishing her Masters thesis on IRENA at York University

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