A global champion for the massive proliferation of renewable energy

Article published by Dr. Hermann Scheer (General Chair, World Council for Renewable Energy) in: Droege, P. Ed. 2009. 100 Per Cent Renewable - Energy Autonomy in Action. Earthscan.

A global champion for the massive proliferation of renewable energy: the International Renewable Energy Agency

From Hermann Scheer, German Parliament Member, Founding President Eurosolar, General Chair, World Council for Renewable Energy

"Mandated by governments worldwide, IRENA aims at becoming the main driving force in promoting a rapid transition towards the widespread and sustainable use of renewable energy on a global scale.

Acting as the global voice for renewable energies, IRENA will provide practical advice and support for both industrialised and developing countries, help them improve their regulatory frameworks and build capacity.

The agency will facilitate access to all relevant information including reliable data on the potential of renewable energy, best practices, effective financial mechanisms and state-of-the-art technological expertise." (IRENA 2009)

The future of power lies with renewable energies. The limits of fossil and nuclear energy are more than obvious. Civilisation stands at a critical decision point. The global community can continue down the path to self-annihilation by wasting trillions of precious funds in oil drilling, shale, tar sand and frozen methane production, and pursuing hopeless nuclear fission and fusion research. Or it can end the madness of a bygone era and focus its remaining resources on a strategy of survival and prosperity by building an efficient, equitable and sustainable power infrastructure based on renewable energy.

Recognise the limits, in order to overcome them

The first limitation of the conventional power system is physical. The energy demand of a growing world population increases at a faster pace than the gains in energy efficiency and conservation. Mineral resources are limited. Every thinking person understands that oil, gas, coal and uranium reserves are finite: but not everyone yet understands that production capacity is very likely to be already declining today - while demand continues to soar. This inexorably results in spiralling energy prices, supply shortages in many national economies and social problems for an increasing number of countries and their citizens. Access to energy has become a global political issue. But as long as all eyes are on the old paradigm of power control there is little hope of transcending this dreadful policy and action conundrum, this state of paralysis. The call for 100% renewable energy is essential - to help focus on the far more advanced, essential new energy paradigm.

The direct costs of conventional energies can only rise while those of renewable energies can only fall. Renewable energies are by definition in infinite supply and, with the exception of biomass, their primary source is free. Costs for the production of energy deriving from renewable sources have to be paid for the required technologies, the hardware and services associated with it, but not for fuels. Only biomass derived energy creates source costs due to the agricultural, forestry and other inputs required to grow, manage, harvest and process plants. Cost of technology falls due to economies of scale and the predicted rise in the productivity of the deployed technologies, still comparatively young. Today’s higher costs for renewable energies, where these still apply, are essential for an economically viable future energy supply, available everywhere and for everyone. This promising future is closer than most people think, or have us believe, particularly those who have ignored or underestimated the potential of renewable energies. Among these culprits are governments, scientists and dominant sections of the conventional energy sector.

The second limitation imposed by the conventional system of energy supply is ecological. Even if vast new oil, gas or coal reserves were to be found, world civilisation could ill afford their use. The ecosphere’s capacity to mitigate damages has already been breached. The switch to renewable energies has to occur now –long before fossil fuels are depleted. The window of effective action may be as small as ten years, perhaps less. We are in a race against time.

But even if man-made global warming or fossil-fuel depletion did not exist, the global energy system would still not be healthy. Their environmental, social and economic costs are enormous. Current energy prices do not reflect these costs - but they are being paid nonetheless. Only renewable energy can liberate society from these shackles.

And yet there are those who regard any sensible response to this existential challenge as an economic burden. This argument is built upon a short-sighted fallacy that has been long unmasked - but continues to cast a heavy shadow on the current energy discussion, in this lingering climate of so-called economic rationalism. The switch to renewable energy promises a number of powerful political, economic, social and ecologic benefits, many of them quantifiable. These are usually overlooked in the laser-like focus at microeconomics, or in the terribly limited and insular cost-comparisons of various energy investments. A macroeconomic, comprehensive view leads to a dramatically different understanding.

Yet while macroeconomic benefits are powerfully evident they cannot deliver microeconomic benefit for every player in the national economy. Well-informed and far-sighted political measures and instruments are mandatory to translate macroeconomic benefits into microeconomic gains and incentives. A good example for this principle is the German renewable energy sources, or feed-in-tariff law. Since renewables so clearly have macroeconomic benefits for society as a whole, they have been supported by law in Germany, initially in the production of electricity. Guaranteed grid-access for renewable electricity, a guaranteed feed-in-tariff - without cap - dramatically lowers the of investment risk for renewable energy producers. This law abolished market barriers stimulating investments effectively.

While it has been obvious for some time that renewable power is essential for a survivable future, most countries are not very well prepared for the inevitable transition. It began to dawn on world governments only recently that renewable policies have to be focused on and promoted. Hence implementation lags massively behind. Many countries encourage the production and use of renewable energy at political and economic levels, but woefully few have drafted and implemented any ambitious policies so far, with the necessary scientific, technological and industrial prerequisites at their disposal. It is no small wonder: the limitless sources of the sun have been marginalised effectively, and methodically rendered irrelevant in the global energy discourse throughout the 20th century.

Institutionalising energy innovation after World War II

In the 1940s and 50ies, energy policy focus began to be trained on nuclear power, in the United States starting with the founding of the Atomic Energy Commission (1947) and President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program (1953). The attitude towards nuclear energy then was the opposite of how renewables are treated until recently: potentials were wildly overstated and the risks woefully underestimated. Virtually all industrialised countries of any ambition felt compelled to bias their national energy strategies towards nuclear. To support this trend, two international institutions were established in 1957: EURATOM in Western Europe, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with its global focus. The establishment of the latter was welcomed by the United Nations but not embraced as part of the UN family. 82 UN member states negotiated the Treaty in 1956 which entered into force the following year.

The IAEA is not only charged with preventing the abuse of fissile material. It also carries the mandate to help governments develop nuclear energy programmes, to facilitate technology transfer and build human resource capacities. Yet atomic energy's star, once shining so bright, has long been eclipsing, even if the industry refuses to accept this. The IAEA, half a century old, does well in this self-perpetuating demi-world, with some ,000 employees and an annual budget of more than US$ 250 million.

The quest for an energy agency of the future

Renewable energies represent the very future of global energy supply and yet no adequate agency was created to promote their spread. This glaring imbalance between societal demand and policy support alone provides a powerful motive for setting up an agency chartered with the massive spread of renewables: IRENA. The call to establish an International Renewable Energy Agency was raised for the first time 28 years ago in the context of the North-South Commission’s Report chaired by former German Chancellor Willy Brandt. The establishment of such agency has been recommended in the final resolution of the first UN conference on renewable energy in Nairobi in 1981, the Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy. Nevertheless, these recommendations remained largely unheeded. It was argued that it would suffice to entrust existing UN-organisations with the promotion of renewable power.

Yet the need to squarely focus on promoting renewables internationally grew steadily. The 1973 oil crisis showed plainly that the oil age would not last forever. To primarily help monitor and manage security of fossil supplies, the OECD countries established the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 1974, called for by Henry Kissinger a year earlier:

"… the answer could only be ... a massive effort to provide producers an incentive to increase their supply, to encourage consumers to use existing supplies more rationally and to develop alternative energy sources" (Henry Kissinger, December 1973)

Because of its focus on the needs of industrialised, largely oil-consuming countries the IEA did not evolve into a UN Agency either – it was soon regarded as a "Club of the Rich." After EURATOM and IAEA a third international organisation covering energy matters had thus been established. All three maintain powerful industry and government links - part of a dangerous collusion to exclude renewable energy from mainstream discourse and policy platforms.

Although most industrialised nations announced initial research and development programmes for renewable energy after the oil crisis, the priority of research and development funding lay elsewhere. When oil prices declined in the early 80ies, most countries scaled back their nascent renewable initiatives. This soon triggered unrest. The eighties and nineties witnessed a growing and widespread unease about the mounting nuclear and fossil energy dependence, its risks and its costs. The Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the Three Mile Island near-melt down in 1978 a year after the plan’s commissioning, and a series of other mishaps combined with the madness of the atomic arms race to compound the strong resistance to nuclear power. The nineties, with climate change reports growing increasingly alarming, saw a further surge in criticism of the fossil energy conundrum. But these calls reached the mainstream international energy discussion terribly late - so entrenched was the belief that there would not be a realistic alternative to conventional energies.

IRENA rising

To help counter this myth, various scientific studies were conducted, to show that a complete energy supply with renewables would be feasible. Examples include a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States in 1979; a publication of the Club de Bellevue, an initiative of scientists from leading French research institutes; or a Europe-wide study released by the Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg (Austria) in 1982. The technical capacity to transform the global energy system clearly existed, the societal need clearly existed, and yet there were no international policy sources or high-level advocates to help bring about choices, and pave the way for a massive shift towards renewables.

In 1990, the European Association for Renewable Energies, EUROSOLAR drafted the first comprehensive memorandum on establishing IRENA, publishing it widely. At the invitation of the former energy commissioner of the UN Secretary General, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, I presented this memorandum at the United Nations headquarter in New York. UN Secretary General Perez de Cuellar responded by establishing a task force, the UNSEGED, United Nations Solar Energy Group on Environment and Development. UNSEGED, chaired by Prof. Thomas Johansson, concluded that the establishment of an International Renewable Energy Agency was necessary. This proposal was aiming at the Rio-Conference of 1992 – it was expected that this conference would establish the agency. At the invitation of the US Senate, the Interparliamentary Conference on the Global Environment took place in Washington in 1991, chaired by Senator Al Gore. At this conference, I proposed that the Conference’s resolution should also speak in favour of the establishment of an IRENA. This proposal was adopted unanimously.

But opposition soon rose, for various reasons. Existing UN organisations that were partly active in the field of renewables, but with far less sweeping capability than what the IRENA initiative implied, spoke out against the establishment of the agency. Some OPEC states saw IRENA as potential threat opposing its establishment. The idea was also rejected by those that simply lacked the vision to see the potential for renewable energy sources to supply the world’s energy needs. Finally and predictably, the conventional energy organisations resisted the emergence of a new and focused agency. Until this date, even though the need for a renewable world vision has become so overwhelming no-one has been able to explain how the global spread of renewables can be carried without an appropriately empowered and newly chartered institution dedicated to the global renewable revolution, and matching the charters and impact of, say, an IAEA or IEA.

For many years, at international conferences in numerous countries, I have advocated the establishment of IRENA. Prerequisite for the founding has always been that one or more governments would take the initiative and build a coalition of like-minded countries. To avoid the notorious compromises and lack of a clear focus of past United Nations and other efforts the focus was on purely intergovernmental alliances, an entirely new initiative free of historical shackles. One important recent milestone on the way towards establishing IRENA has been the 2004 International Parliamentary Forum on Renewable Energies, which was hosted by the German Parliament, taking place in parallel to the governmental conference 'Renewables2004'. I convened 300 members of parliament from 70 countries to take part in this conference.

The Final Resolution states:

"Promoting renewables requires new institutional measures in the field of international cooperation. To facilitate technology transfer on renewables and energy efficiency and to develop and promote policy strategies, the most important institutional measure is to establish an International Renewable Energy Agency ..., which should be set up as an international intergovernmental organization. Membership would be voluntary, and all governments should have the opportunity to join at any time. The Agency’s primary tasks would be to advise governments and international organizations on the development of policy and funding strategies for renewables use, to promote international non-commercial technology transfer, and to provide training and development."

On 26 and 27 January 2009 IRENA's founding conference and inaugural preparatory commission meetings were held in Bonn, with 75 inaugural signatories and more than 120 participating nations. This move was necessary and long overdue, for reasons that have now become plain and commonplace. IRENA's success will be measured by how effectively it pursues the goal of a fossil-fuel and nuclear free world.

Article published in: Droege, P. Ed. 2009. 100 Per Cent Renewable - Energy Autonomy in Action. Earthscan. Reproduced with permission.

Contact: Nina Alsen, office of Hermann Scheer MP
Tel: 0049 30 227 73836

A global champion for the massive proliferation of renewable energy (pdf) A global champion for the massive proliferation of renewable energy (pdf)

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