Delegates from 120 governments meeting in Bonn, Germany, this week launched an intergovernmental renewables agency they hope will be on par with powerhouses like the International Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The International Renewable Energy Agency, like the IEA and IAEA, will promote the development and deployment of renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, water and geothermal, by informing and advising countries on regulations, financing and technology expertise.
"This sends an important message to the world," Claudia Kemfert, one of Germany's leading energy experts, told United Press International in a telephone interview Wednesday. "It is saying: 'Renewables are now just as important as all the other energy sources.'"
Dubbed IRENA, the agency "will focus on providing (upon request) policy advice for national governments, facilitating technology transfer and capacity building," according to the new agency's Web site. "Mandated by governments worldwide, IRENA aims at becoming the main driving force in promoting a rapid transition towards the widespread and sustainable use of renewable energy on a global scale."
Traditional energy sources have long had institutional backing.
The Paris-based International Energy Agency advises member countries on oil, gas and coal energy policies. The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, an independent but U.N.-related body, is a global adviser on nuclear energy issues.
IRENA is in its infancy, with no plans to join the U.N. network and still in search of a permanent home. Its Web site says it will work with existing energy agencies. There no doubt will be overlaps. But the established agencies have played critical roles on the international stage, and with a focus on future energy resources, IRENA will likely too.
The IEA was founded during the oil crisis of 1973-1974 to monitor adequate supplies and now issues reports on world oil markets and global energy forecasts.
Originally the "Atoms for Peace" organization in 1957, the IAEA has since facilitated nuclear best practices and has led international inspections of nuclear programs suspected of having weapons aims.
Much has changed since the renewable energy sector was a pipe dream.
Climate change calls for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, Europe is scrambling to reduce its dependence on Russian fossil imports, and U.S. President Barack Obama is looking at investment in renewables to help save the American economy.
"Many countries have recognized the opportunities that renewable energies offer for climate protection, security of supply, economic growth and employment," German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said upon the launch of IRENA. "In 2008 over $150 billion were invested in renewable energies worldwide. In Germany alone, 250,000 people work in this sector."
Germany, the world's largest solar photovoltaics market and a technology leader in wind energy, has long lobbied for something like IRENA. Since 2004 Berlin received backing from Denmark and Spain in its initiative.
It all came together Monday and Tuesday, when representatives from 120 countries attended the conference in Bonn. IRENA's founding treaty was signed by some 75 nations -- a "huge success," Gabriel said.
They include renewable energy powerhouses Germany, Spain and Sweden, but also more unusual countries such as Kenya and the United Arab Emirates, which hope to boost solar energy generation at home.
"Large-scale solar thermal power plants are being built in Spain -- so why not build some in the countries of North Africa too?" Gabriel asked. "And why shouldn't North Africa be able to sell its renewable electricity, as one of many export goods, to Northern Europe, where sunshine is in short supply?"
While developing nations hope IRENA will provide green technology transfer, exactly that may have prevented larger nations from joining just yet.
The United States and some other large economies -- including Russia, China, Japan and Brazil -- have not signed the founding document.
Gabriel said he expected more nations to hop on board once the agency takes form.
In June, a commission will decide on the location of IRENA's headquarters and elect the first director general. Bonn (also home to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body tasked with hammering out a new global climate deal) and German solar energy advocate Hermann Scheer, one of the founding fathers of IRENA, are the favorites.
IRENA is still in its infant phase compared to the traditional agencies. It aims to be fully operational in 2010, with a starting budget of $25 million. Then, roughly 100 experts will be tasked with facilitating the shift into a new energy age.
Given the enormous potential of renewables (Gabriel said they could satisfy the energy needs of 9 billion people), IRENA may quickly turn into a global player in the energy world.
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