Established in 1974, one year after the Yom Kippur War triggered a chain of events causing a global oil shock, its mission was to maintain world energy security through the management of petroleum stocks to be shared or sold on world markets when market conditions once again veered into dangerous territory. Many testing periods came, for instance in 1979, when the Iranian revolution sent oil prices soaring, and after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Today, with India and China becoming major energy consumers and the whole world grappling with climate change, the IEA says its mandate has broadened to encompass what it calls the Three Es: energy security, economic development and environmental protection. But many in the renewable energy sector have questioned its environmental performance. In 2007, the IEA abruptly raised its wind energy expectations, but its outlook continues to lag behind forecasts within the wind sector itself. (Windpower Monthly, December 2008)
The IEA's projections for wind power construction were also well below those mapped out by the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) in its "moderate" scenario of 1420 GW by 2030. According to the council's most advanced scenario, assuming all available policy options along the wind industry's recommendations were adopted, wind could provide between 19.7% and 24% of the world's electricity with almost 2400 GW installed by 2030. A cavalry of renewables and environmental organisations, including Greenpeace and GWEC, have sternly criticised the IEA, saying it underestimated the role of wind power while overestimating the potential of carbon capture and storage, and nuclear energy.
GWEC secretary general Steve Sawyer is concerned that within the IEA there remains considerable support for nuclear energy, which competes with wind power for policy support and is distrusted by many environmentalists worried about accidents and nuclear proliferation.
Yet Sawyer is cautiously optimistic that the IEA is growing even more comfortable with wind. He was encouraged by the IEA's upgrading in July of the renewables unit to directorate level, with physicist Paolo Frankl, an energy and environmental technology expert, at its helm.
"The image (of renewables) within the IEA has improved dramatically within the past few years," says Sawyer. He credits the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), an intergovernmental group formed in January with 136 member states, with keeping pressure on the IEA to further improve its view of wind. "It's clear," says Sawyer. "Whereas five years ago, renewable energy didn't figure much in any IEA scenario, they're now at a point where (it's) playing a prominent, if not necessarily a dominant, role in a lot of their scenarios.
"It's a huge shift," says Sawyer. "And I think that's largely due to the success of the wind industry, which in commercial terms is the one that has - in terms of price, in terms of scope, in terms of speed of development - made a big difference."