20 Oct 09 | The New York Times

New agency tolead global energy push

by Sarah J. Wachter

The International Renewable Energy Agency, set up this year to lead a global crusade for renewable energy development and sharing of technology between the developed and developing worlds, has come a long way in a short time.

Signed into existence in January at a founding conference in Bonn, the agency -- known by its acronym, Irena -- now has 137 member states, including the United States, which joined in July. Mexico has said it plans to join shortly.

At a second conference in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, in July, member states accepted an offer from the United Arab Emirates to house the agency's future headquarters in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi's zero-carbon, zero-waste desert development project. They also appointed a top French official, Helene Pelosse, to head the organization.

Meetings in Abu Dhabi this month started developing budget priorities and a work program -- including a debut at the Copenhagen climate change summit in December, where the agency will be a host to a renewable energy conference.

Nursed into existence by Germany, the agency chose Abu Dhabi as its future base over Bonn or Vienna in response to a promised $ 136 million, six-year funding package, including free office space in perpetuity.

Irena will be housed in an architectural tour de force that will combine state-of-the-art passive energy-efficient features and a giant, energy-producing photovoltaic roof.

The eight-story building, designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill Architecture, will generate 5.6 gigawatt hours of electricity annually, saving 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year over what would be produced by an equivalent generating plant powered with natural gas. Irena will initially occupy two floors of the building, which will also house the headquarters of Masdar City itself.

The financing package also includes $3 million a year for operating expenses and temporary quarters in Abu Dhabi until the new building is completed in 2011.

In addition, a special endowment of $50 million has been offered by the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development to assist developing countries with renewable energy projects and scholarships through 2016.

Fred Lash, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of State, said the United States, under United Nations rules, would pay 22 percent of the budget. "Irena's annual budget is estimated to start at $17 million in fiscal year 2010 but it is expected to grow to $48 million over time, so we roughly estimate that the annual U.S. contribution would be in the $4 to $11 million range over time," Mr. Lash said.

France's role as a nuclear technology exporter brought concerns among some members that Ms. Pelosse might shift the agency toward a pro-nuclear stance.

Ms. Pelosse denies that. "Irena will not deal with nuclear energy, simply because it is not renewable," she said in an interview. "Nuclear and renewable energy have nothing to do with each other."

"Besides assisting its member states on how to best promote renewable energies nationally, Irena will raise the awareness worldwide that a world powered by 100 percent renewables is possible," she said. "We want to demonstrate in Copenhagen that the renewable energy potential is huge."