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Irena: The most important agency you never heard of

By Kyle Saadeh and Logan Whitehead

As we here in the North East shed off a rather chilly spring, it is only fitting that the conversation about renewable energy should begin to heat up again.  Much to the chagrin of some on Capitol Hill, the 2014 budget proposed by the current administration seems to be doubling down on Mr. Obama’s commitment to alternative energy.  Yet, with everything between gun control to the sputtering economy dominating much of the debate these days, it is unlikely we will see the masses clamoring for new wind-farms any time soon.

On the international stage, the tone of the conversation follows much along similar lines.  While meeting with his counter-parts in a recent trip to Costa Rica, President Obama once again expressed his commitment to working with the international community to decrease the world’s dependency on fossil fuels.  Unfortunately for the proponents of renewable energy who long for a green energy infrastructure untethered from carbon-based fuels, other issues like the European debt crisis and the Syrian civil war continue to dominate the conversation.  Yet, is this really shocking news for anyone?  It should be no surprise that the majority people care more about their jobs, gas prices, sports, movies, and war than they do about solar-farms and green energy credit markets.

So in this world of headlines dominated by the most immediate and the most sensational, the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) has had to find its voice and place at the table of other well-established International Organizations as the leading agency on alternative energy.  To the vexation of many climatologists around the world, the IMF and Security Council have much more allure (and money) than renewable energy – needless to say, if you have never heard of Irena then you are probably not alone. Headquartered in Abu Dhabi with 109 member states, the fledgling organization is still in its infancy and vying for more resources.  Yet, if there is ever to be a significant international effort and commitment to a modern world running on renewable energy, the success of Irena will be absolutely necessary.

One of the noblest attributes of any International Organization is their ability to provide states with a central location to pool resources and technology towards a common goal.  Not only does this “pooling” effect allow resources to coalesce around a central hub, but also they can greatly reduce the transaction costs of developing novel technology.  The importance of reducing the costs of renewable energy technology cannot be overstated, and remains the largest hurdle facing the alternative energy industry, which is competing against a fully matured fossil fuel based industry.  Ideally, Irena will provide a central location that investors can go to for advice, information, and in some cases technology – in the hopes of reducing the risks for investing in this novel technology.  Furthermore, Irena will allow participants to share ideas on how to synergize renewable energy sources into already established power grids, thus making them solvent and attractive to both public and private investment.

Yet for this to happen, the kiddie pool needs to widen and deepen to Olympic proportions.  Several major steps have been taken toward this goal, and the leadership of Irena seems to recognize the importance of deepening and widening her influence.  The most recent efforts Irena has taken to tackle this issue is by spearheading exciting and state-of-the-art projects that will generate public attention, such as the Shams One solar plant in the UAE – one of the world’s largest.  Also, this winter Irena announced the launch of its renewable energy atlas, which provides the solar and wind energy potential of any given area in a single website. Not only is this site free and open to the public, but is also dynamic, as even non-members or private entities can contribute to the atlas development.  Similar to how CERN was able to make nuclear science cool and exciting (recently you may recall some of your friends suddenly becoming “experts” on the Higgs Boson), Irena would love to generate the same sense of excitement and attention by being on the cutting edge of technology in the field and attracting the brightest minds in the industry – and hopefully wealthiest investors.  Yet work remains if Irena is ever to catapult itself into being the go-to agency for alternative resources.  Most notably, Irena should capitalize on the many grass roots efforts for climate change and make concerted efforts to engage the private citizens and backyard scientists around the globe who wish to make a substantive contribution to the alternative energy industry.  Furthermore, Irena must emphasis its role as advisor and possess no threat to investors or a country’s sovereignty.

Still it is unlikely that Irena will soon have the influence and allure of other international organizations that deal with, let’s say, genocide or weapons of mass destruction; but this does not mean that Irena should not make every concerted effort to expand her influence. The more Irena is in the lexicon of the international scientific community, the more her resources will grow. By increasing her influence and prestige, Irena will find herself in a virtuous cycle of resources and, no pun intended, energy. The time for Irena to make her mark upon the world is now.

Kyle Saadeh and Logan Whitehead are M.A. candidates of the Whitehead School of International Relations and Diplomacy at Seton Hall University in South Orange NJ.

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