Hélène Pelosse, Director-General of IRENA: “IRENA will demonstrate that a wider and faster deployment of renewables is possible”

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) was officially established in Bonn on 26 January 2009 to become the main driving force for promoting a rapid transition towards the widespread and sustainable use of renewable energy on a global scale. After a very sharp uptake, as of today, IRENA boasts 137 member states (46 African, 36 European, 32 Asian, 14 American and 9 Australia/Oceania).

Mandated by these governments worldwide, IRENA envisages providing practical advice and support for both industrialised and developing countries, thereby helping to improve frameworks and build capacity. Moreover, the Agency intends to facilitate access to all relevant information, including reliable data on the potentials for renewable energy, best practices, effective financial mechanisms, and state-of-the-art technological expertise.

A French citizen born in Canada, Hélène Pelosse was appointed as IRENA’s first Director-General earlier this year after a long career working as a financial and later trade adviser in the French Prime Minister's Office; an adviser in Angela Merkel's private office during the German EU Presidency in 2007; and, most recently, as Deputy Head of Staff in charge of international affairs in the Private Office of the French Minister of State in charge of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and Town and Country Planning.

In view of IRENA’s importance to the future of renewable energies around the world, Renewable Energy Magazine is very pleased to have recently had the opportunity to interview Hélène Pelosse to discuss her appointment as Director-General and the beginnings and immediate future of IRENA. An exclusive for Renewable Energy Magazine, this interview is her first with a renewable energy website since her appointment. We hope it will be the first of many during a strong and long-lasting relationship between Renewable Energy Magazine and IRENA.

Interview date: October, 2009

Interviewer: Toby Price

Firstly, congratulations on being chosen to lead IRENA. Could you tell us a little more about yourself and why you think you were chosen as Director-General? On the IRENA website it says that you have “a long record of outstanding experience and profound knowledge of the renewable sector”. Please could you describe how you have been involved in promoting renewable energy to date?

My involvement in the renewables sector can be described both in terms of responsibilities and concrete achievements. I will briefly focus on four main points:

- l have actively participated in European negotiations in order to fix ambitious objectives and adopt concrete directives, like the Energy Tax Directive, and defining targets for renewably-produced electricity as well as “biofuels”.

- l have also been actively involved in “Climate and Energy” negotiations at European level, first during the German presidency of the European Community and then during the French presidency. These negotiations have led to concrete binding objectives of renewable energy production in all European countries for the next ten years.

- I have participated in the WTO Green Product negotiations.

- l have worked on the Solar Mediterranean Plan, fixing a 20 GW renewable energy production objective for the southern and eastern Mediterranean countries.

The Middle East has been selected as the location for IRENA’s headquarters and a woman has been chosen to lead IRENA. Is this a way of sending out a progressive message to this area of the world?

I do believe your question should be addressed to the countries which have nominated me,  rather than at me. I think that the election of a woman to this position is a strong message to all women around the world. I have experienced very strong support during the campaign and my commitment to staffing IRENA with 50% women at all levels will help empower more women.

Some people were surprised when a French candidate was elected to lead IRENA – considering France’s close relationship with nuclear power – and that an OPEC member should be chosen to host IRENA’s headquarters. What would you say to these people?

I do not know whether people were as surprised about the election of a French candidate and the decision to locate headquarters in Abu Dhabi as you indicate. I do believe the key criteria when choosing a candidate - for that position as well as for any others - are the professional competencies and skills, the commitment and motivation and the actual program and agenda.

What does Abu Dhabi offer that the other candidates (Austria and Germany) could not? What does IRENA hope to attain through its location in Masdar City?

The location of Masdar City is a symbol, underlining the importance of renewable energies. By hosting IRENA’s headquarter in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, one of the biggest oil producing countries in the world, has sent out a strong message: we should not rely on energies of the past to power our future.

IRENA aspires to become the main driving force for promoting a rapid transition towards the widespread and sustainable use of renewable energy on a global scale. This requires action on many fronts. Has IRENA already prepared a road map for the coming years?

The following five tasks are of overall importance:

- Setting up the institutional structure of the agency and recruiting a qualified, truly international and multidisciplinary team with the best experts and professionals in each function. I made the commitment to staff IRENA with 50% women.

- Connecting and partnering with existing stakeholders, in order to gain immediate and useful information, to avoid duplication of efforts and to speak with a unified voice.

- Developing, launching and implementing RE actions in various countries, corresponding to their needs, their geographical situation and their financial capacities. Renewable energy development opportunities and possibilities vary from one country, region or zone to another. We must acknowledge this situation and act accordingly.

- Finding and developing adequate financial solutions with other stakeholders for renewable energies based on economic situations and possibilities. IRENA will challenge the industry to cut costs and to develop equipment fit for installation in developing countries at a lower price. IRENA will at the same time facilitate the introduction of these technologies and work with other stakeholders to design adequate ways for countries to finance these technologies.

- Publishing success-stories from all over the world, leading the way to the accelerated deployment of renewables in the future.

Many scientists are already very concerned about whether climate change is occurring at a faster rate than was predicted even just a few years ago. Considering the immense challenges faced by IRENA, with greenhouse gas emissions continuing to rise and leading nations struggling to agree targets that will start having a meaningful impact on emissions in the near future, what are IRENA’s immediate priorities?

IRENA will demonstrate that a wider and faster deployment of renewables is possible. The Agency will publish best-practice examples like cities and communities that are already today powered by 100% renewable energy, effective policies in countries or regions, individuals that made a difference, and technologies that led to a scale-up of renewables. At their request, IRENA will assist its members in achieving similar results. Often, these projects can be scaled up and duplicated. IRENA will support its members in this. If the effective framework conditions are in place, a country can achieve a lot.

How will IRENA be financed? Will each member state make contributions based on say their GDP? If so, will nations have different levels of bargaining power in IRENA depending on the amount of funding they provide?

Each member state will contribute to the agency’s budget on the basis of the UN assessment scale. We play along the lines “one member, one vote” – regardless of their contribution. However, IRENA will not be different from other international organisations regarding bargaining power of individual states. There are countries with more and countries with less influence.

Why do you think that a number of major nations like Russia, China, Mexico, Brazil (which accounted for more than 90% of new investment in renewable energy in Latin America in 2008), and Canada have not joined IRENA?

Yes, it is true some countries are not yet on board. But have you noticed the rapidity with which the establishment of IRENA took place? In the beginning it was only Germany who soon partnered up with Denmark and Spain. A group of roughly 50 states were involved in the foundation process which stretched throughout 2008. In January 2009, 75 countries signed the statute and half a year later we were already at 137. I am confident that others will join soon.

On the occasion of my visit to Mexico beginning of October, President Calderon announced that Mexico will sign the statute of IRENA [Editor's Note: This interview was conducted just before Mexico joined IRENA]. I have received similar signals from other countries. Some governments have to undergo time-consuming decision procedures prior to deciding on matters like joining an international governmental organization.

Do you consider that nuclear power and renewable energy are complementary or in competition with each other?

Nuclear and renewable energy have nothing to do with each other. Nuclear energy is not renewable because uranium is a finite resource – it is as simple as that. You cannot compare the two. The basic difference amounts to the fact that renewables are everywhere and for everybody - they are universal. You can deploy renewables on a very small or on a large scale, they are very flexible. And they can be installed very quickly with comparatively low initial investment costs. Renewable energy is infinite, it is decentralized, safe and clean and is getting cheaper every day.

On a timeline from now to 2050 (or to the latest visible year), how do you see the weight of each different technology (wind, PV, thermoelectric solar, biofuels, geothermal, etc.) changing in the energy mix?

I know one thing for sure: the share of renewable energy will be much larger than at present. Numerous scenarios that use different modeling approaches demonstrate that all renewable sources have a large potential. These scenarios differ mainly in the role they assign to energy efficiency. Right now wind is very important but I think that PV will play a more important role in the future – simply because costs of the equipment are very likely to continue coming down considerably.

While most renewable energy technologies are well researched, developed and established in the market, there are some that are still in the testing phase. Take ocean and wave technologies for example. A Scottish company is doing research on this and France is also interested. We do not know yet how these technologies will develop. The future share of each one of them depends on technological development and also on the priorities governments will be setting in the future.

Finally, do you believe that the decisions reached in the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December will affect how IRENA proceeds in the future? If so, in what way?

Copenhagen is about greenhouse gas reductions. Industrialized countries as well as emerging economies are the main greenhouse gas emitters. Many of them have greenhouse gas reduction targets that are coupled with renewable energy introduction targets. The European Union for example has the binding target of 20% renewable energy by 2020. India aims at implementing its national solar plan targeting 20 GW of solar power by 2020. All in all, at least 73 countries had policy targets for the introduction of renewable energies in early 2009 and at least 64 countries had implemented policies to promote renewable power generation.

Renewable energies are a key solution for greenhouse gas reductions. And I know that many countries worldwide have understood this. IRENA will help those countries to reach the targets they have set for themselves on an individual basis. The Agency will assist its members in drafting policy instruments, programmes, regulations and incentives to promote certain technologies or sectors. Energy and climate are two faces of the same coin.

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