Pledging Allegiance to Renewable Energy

Representatives from around the world came to Washington, D.C., to pledge their support for promoting and developing renewable energy sources. As part of the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference 2008, attendees committed their nations, organizations and businesses to make significant gains in supporting renewable energy. Many of these pledges are aimed at growing the role of biomass in the world's energy supply.
By Jerry W. Kram
The need for energy knows no boundaries, no class and no race. Whether it is cooking fire in a developing country or a 1,000-horsepower diesel engine powering a modern factory, the need for energy is a basic human necessity. With a burgeoning population now topping 6 billion, traditional finite energy sources are stretched to the limit. The impact of those sources on the environment are becoming increasingly evident, and the global need to promote and develop renewable energy sources has never been greater. To fill the basic needs of the developing world and satisfy the engines of the economy in the developed world, a universal commitment is needed to create and sustain energy sources that are renewable and environmentally friendly.

Many countries, agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and businesses are willing to make that kind of a commitment, says Reno Harnish, a principal deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department. Harnish was part of multi-agency team that organized the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference (WIREC) 2008 in March.

WIREC is the third in a series of international conferences, the first were held in Bonn, Germany, in 2004 and Beijing in 2005. "The genesis of these conferences came from the renewable energy community, particularly the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE)," Harnish says. "They believed the international community should come together regularly to encourage the adoption of renewable energy."

ACORE raised the idea of bringing the conference to the United States, Harnish says, and found a number of leaders receptive to the idea. Developing renewable energy resources turned out to be part of many of the policies being pursued by the government. "It fit in well with our climate change policy," Harnish says. "It fit in well with our energy security policy. That was the genesis of the idea, to advance our goals on climate change, energy security, and sustainable development by promoting the rapid adoption of renewables." Five or six agencies came together to plan the conference, Harnish adds.

Much of the world was represented at the conference as 113 ministerial level representatives and more than 3,000 other attendees shared their successes, challenges, policies and opportunities for promoting and developing renewable fuels. There were three focal points of discussion during the conference-research and development, market adoption, and finance and rural development, Harnish says. "We felt that an important outcome of WIREC was that it brought together the highest levels of government with the highest levels of business and the NGO community to discuss barriers and suggest solutions for getting over those barriers to renewables adoption," Harnish says. "But we said there has to be something else: practical, tangible commitments."

President George W. Bush addressed the conference and reiterated that renewable energy was not only a key part of preserving the environment but also a matter of economic and national security for the countries involved in the conference. "My job, as the president of the country, is to put pro-growth policies in place," Bush said. "But we're dependent upon oil, and so as our economy grows, it's going to create more demand for oil-same with China, same with India, same with other growing countries. The dependency upon oil also puts us at the mercy of terrorists. If there's tight supply and demand, all it requires is one terrorist disruption of oil and that price goes even higher. It's in our interests to end our dependency on oil because it-that dependency-presents a challenge to our national security."

Worldwide Effort
One of the goals of the conference was to continue to build the political momentum and institutional support for renewable fuels around the world. One of the tools to commit governments, organizations and businesses to make significant changes was the pledge process. Nearly 150 pledges to increase the use of renewable fuels were made during and after the conference. "We regard the pledges as the heart of the matter," Harnish says. "It's turned out to be a grand success."

The pledges cover the gamut of renewable resources, from wind and hydropower to biomass and conservation. The commitments made also run the gamut. Businesses and communities pledged to displace their current energy needs with renewables. International finance groups pledged to boost their funding for renewable development projects.

Government agencies committed research and development funding to create new renewable resources. Governments vowed to change the laws in their countries to give renewable energy industries a firm and consistent framework for development. The U.S. government alone made 31 pledges, Harnish says. "You see in the pledges that the United States has in its climate policy that one size does not fit all," he says. "National circumstances differ around the globe. Feedstocks differ and the level of technology differs. So as we go to tackling the greenhouse gas problem we are very cognizant that the U.S. will propose a plan that involves different mixtures of energy than say, Chile."

Part of the follow-up to the WIREC conference will include monitoring to see how well participants are doing to fulfill their commitments. The U.S. DOE is doing an analysis of the commitments to calculate its impact on world energy consumption. "They will calculate how many gigawatts over time the pledges will create as well as the greenhouse gases avoided," Harnish says. "So we will be able to say in a very practical way what was the impact of the rapid adoption of renewables."

Many of the pledges will have a significant impact on the adoption of biomass as an alternative energy source. "There was a strong focus throughout the conference on biomass," Harnish says. "The [U.S.] Department of Agriculture was a partner in creating this conference and the rural development theme by its very nature demands a certain focus on biomass." Many of the significant biomass initiatives came from U.S. government agencies. The U.S. DOE reiterated its goal to reduce the production cost of cellulosic ethanol to 82 cents a gallon by 2012 and reduce feedstock logistics costs (harvesting, storage, preprocessing and transportation) to 35 cents a gallon. The agency's goal is to make the fuel cost competitive at a modeled cost of $1.33 a gallon in 2007 dollars.

The USDA committed millions of dollars to develop biomass supplies in the United States. It will be making grants to encourage the use of woody biomass and to establish and manage cultivated energy crops. It will continue to manage a program that gives priority to biomass-based products in government procurement programs. U.S. agencies involved in foreign development highlighted a variety of initiatives as well, from working with the government of Haiti to plant jatropha for biodiesel production and watershed protection, to providing financing and insurance for exports of renewable energy technology. "Looking at all that, I would say that biomass will play a very strong and substantial role for the outlook of renewables in the future," Harnish says.

Different Countries, Different Solutions
The commitment from the United States comes from the very top, Harnish says, citing Bush's comments at the conference. That leadership will continue to accelerate the progress seen in the implementation of renewable energy projects in the past decade. "The president asked a couple of times for the group to look at where we are today as compared with 10 years ago," Harnish says. "He said we can't even imagine where renewables are going to be 10 years hence. So he has a very visionary, strong and emphatic feeling about renewables. I think that is going to motivate our policy in the coming years."

Many other countries also made biomass related pledges. Some, like Germany and Lithuania vowed to increase the use and practicality of biomass energy in their own countries.

The Netherlands committed to sharing its biomass technology with developing countries in order to raise the incomes and standards of living in those countries. Paraguay committed to reforming its laws to change sections that are seen as impediments to a strong and sustainable biomass industry. "These countries are interested in the use of biomass, but with their technologies, feedstocks and other things, they are all looking at different solutions," Harnish says. "One solution was looking at thorn bushes to generate electricity. So you have some very exciting and cutting-edge technologies here."

The participants agreed that another conference to monitor the progress of the current pledges and push the development of renewable energy to an even higher level would be an excellent idea. India will host the next International Renewable Energy Conference, scheduled for 2010. "India is an important player in renewable fuels and climate change questions," Harnish says. "We are working with our international partners to see that work is done and in 2010 to continue the momentum for the adoption of renewables."

Details of the pledges are available on the Internet at The Web site is maintained by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st century. The site also has information about the preceding International Renewable Energy Conferences. BIO

Jerry W. Kram is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach him at or (701) 738-4962.