India joined the International Renewable Energy Agency last week, becoming the largest energy consumer in the recently launched organization.
India is the 77th member of IRENA, a multinational agency that formed in January to help governments and private industries expand renewable energy installments worldwide.
The inclusion of India, the world's fifth largest primary energy consumer, in the information-sharing organization could help develop the country's growing solar energy industry while also providing IRENA with more legitimacy, environmentalists said.
"The fact that India, the world's most populated country after China, joined - it signals that large developing countries are taking this issue seriously," said Daphne Wysham, a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. "The rest of the world should take notice."
India is focused on bringing down the cost of solar energy and developing technologies to produce biomass-based energy from plant and animal waste, according to a press release.
"Development is the main priority for a country like India, and policies related to renewable energy have to be in harmony with our development imperatives," the statement said.
Alice Slater, an anti-nuclear energy activist, has assisted IRENA's development since 1995. "The main thing IRENA can do, besides address climate change, is give assistance to poor countries to help them access free energy from the wind and the sun," said Slater, the New York director of Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. "If it works in India, who is to say it can't help in Africa?"
Critics in the United States have questioned whether IRENA could in fact help India expand its renewable energy capacity. "Experience proves that such agencies almost always quickly become bureaucracies that are effective only at perpetuating themselves and that often become obstacles to progress," said Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, in an e-mail.
Rather than create an institution with permanent positions, Ebell said that ad-hoc international collaborations such as the Asia-Pacific Partnership have proven useful in exchanging clean energy technologies.
India adds itself to a diverse group [PDF] of industrialized and developing nations that have joined the agency since its founding conference, including several from the European Union and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). But major economies such as the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and the United Kingdom have not signed up.
In order for the organization to fulfill its ambitions, more industrialized nations would need to join, Wysham said. "Clearly it's just the shell of an organization that needs financial resources before it can rise to the task that it has set for itself," she said. "The biggest emitters like China and the United States, we clearly need to get them on board."
U.S. Representative Ed Markey from the state of Massachusetts introduced a resolution last month recommending that the United States join IRENA "as soon as practicable," noting that the country could nominate a director general and put in a bid to host the organization if it signs up by April 30.
Markey also delivered a letter to former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last year, signed by 50-60 fellow members of Congress, that urged the United States to join. But the Bush administration was not interested, according to Gerry Waldron, staff director of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which Markey chairs.
"We're hoping the U.S. becomes a charter member," Waldron said at a briefing on Capitol Hill last month that discussed IRENA. "The U.S. should not miss the boat."
The Obama administration is more favorable to the development of renewable energy, but Waldron said that other issues, such as the current financial crisis and domestic energy reform, will likely take priority. "I do not know if the president or Secretary [of State] Clinton can focus on this in the months ahead," Waldron said.
Herman Scheer, a Social Democratic member of the German Parliament and chair of the World Council for Renewable Energy, has led IRENA's development since 1990. Speaking at February's Capitol Hill briefing, Scheer said the agency is needed to promote the worldwide switch from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources.
"Many governments, many scientists, many industries believe the wrong ideas about renewable energy," Scheer said. "There is disinformation because many governments believe this will not be an alternative. We need an international institution to overcome this tremendous gap."
IRENA's opponents in the United States have questioned the need for an additional bureaucratic institution when organizations within the United Nations and the International Energy Agency already focus on developing renewable energy.
Scheer responded that these organizations have not devoted sufficient resources or expertise to expanding renewable energy capacity, noting that a separate institution would ensure that clean energy receives additional support at a time when investments are growing. "If you believe in the need for an International Atomic Energy Agency but not for IRENA, then you have a double standard," he said.
Member nations will vote in June on IRENA's permanent headquarters and its first director general. So far, Germany, Austria, and the United Arab Emirates have applied to host the agency.