Sustainable Energy: Perspectives from the US and Europe

January 8, 2010
Tags: ,
This is a reposting of a recent piece by Marie Shields, editor of the online magazine Power and Energy. The article includes a few comments of mine.

Generating more energy from renewable sources will be crucial to our survival: not just as individual countries, but as a planet. With this in mind, Marie Shields takes a look at the current state of the renewables sector in two key regions: the US and Europe.

red wind imageEurope and the United States: both Western, developed economic powerhouses, and by extension, voracious consumers of energy. Both also chasing ambitious targets for generating a portion of this energy from renewable sources: in the US, 10 percent by 2012, rising to 25 percent by 2025; and in Europe, 12 percent by 2010 and 20 percent by 2020.

What are the differences that lie under these surface similarities? Below, we take a look at the unique challenges faced by each region in its quest to safeguard our energy future.

Current status

Known primarily as Kyoto foot-draggers under the Bush Administration, the US government is once again a friend of the environment thanks to the election of President Obama last year. The Bush government gave $72 billion in subsidies to fossil fuels between 2002 and 2008, with renewables receiving $29 billion in the same period. Obama and his team must now try to redress this imbalance, starting with the $6 billion earmarked for renewable energy and electric transmission technologies loan guarantees in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

The countries of the European Union, regarded by many as the global leaders in renewable energy development, have a longer track record of environmental consciousness. As long ago as 1997, the EU set a target of working toward 12 percent of energy from renewables by 2010.

David Levy, Director of the Center for Sustainable Enterprise and Regional Competitiveness at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and author of the blog Climate Inc., points out that while renewables have traditionally been lower on the radar in the US, Americans are also very good at pushing ahead with an idea once they latch on to it. “I think it’s true that there is some catching up going on,” he says. “There’s a huge amount of wind power that is now being installed in Texas; and California is leading in terms of really large grid scale solar thermal installations.

“It’s been hard to get financing. Renewables haven’t had the kind of sustained, predictable subsidies here in the US that Europe has had, and we lacked a mandatory cap-and trade-system. The European Trading System for carbon and national targets provided a clear signal for business to take renewables seriously. It has been slower here in the US.”        

Despite its slower start, the US appears to have already moved ahead of the EU in terms of renewable energy consumption. According to the Energy Information Administration, renewable energy accounted for around 11.1 percent of energy produced in the United States in the first half of 2009. In Europe, meanwhile, figures from Europe’s Energy Portal indicate that 9.2 percent of Europe’s final energy consumption came from renewable sources in 2006, the last year for which confirmed data are available.

It should be noted, however, that 7.4 percent of the US total came from conventional hydroelectric power, with only 4.7 percent coming from ‘new’ sources such as biomass, geothermal, solar and wind.

As things stand, the EU may not succeed in reaching its original target 12 percent in 2010. In an attempt to address this situation, in 2008 the European Commission released its Renewable Energy Framework Directive, with an even more ambitious target of achieving 20 percent of generation from renewables by 2020.

Christine Lins, Secretary General of the European Renewable Energy Council, believes that Europe can meet the 2020 goal: “We are on track, but we must see some further impetus that this development will really happen. Progress so far has been made by five or six EU member states. The challenge we have ahead of us is to make sure that all 27 member states are being serious about renewables and developing them to their full potential.”

Lins’s point is that the overall figures mask a large variation between individual countries. Sweden topped the list of renewable-friendly countries at 41.3 percent according to 2006 figures, with Latvia at 31.4 percent, Finland at 28.9 percent, Austria at 25.1 percent and Portugal at 21.5 percent. At the bottom of the list, Malta generated none of its energy from renewables in 2006, with Luxembourg and the UK not doing much better, at 1 percent and 1.5 percent respectively.

Says Lins, “At the moment, development as far as renewables are concerned is coming from certain countries. However, there is a lot of potential in all the other member states. One of the major outlines in the renewables directive is that countries by June next year have to come up with national renewable energy action plans, outlining how they foresee reaching their binding national renewable energy targets. The hope is that these action plans will effectively provide the stability and framework for making sure that the objectives are achieved.”

Blown away

Wind and solar are two main areas of focus for renewables on both sides of the Atlantic. Wind energy is starting to take off in the US, according to figures from the American Wind Energy Association, which put installed wind power capacity at the end of the third quarter of 2009 at over 31,000 MW, generating enough electricity to power the equivalent of nearly nine million homes.

The state posting the fastest growth was Arizona, which installed its first utility-scale project. Pennsylvania ranked second in growth with 29 percent, followed by Illinois with 22 percent, Wyoming with 21 percent and New Mexico with 20 percent. Texas remains firmly at the head of the pack overall, however, with 8797 MW of operating capacity.

“Wind power installations are up, and that is good news for America’s economy, environment and energy security,” said AWEA CEO Denise Bode in a statement. “But manufacturing, which has the potential to employ many more Americans in good, clean energy jobs, remains uncertain. A firm, long-term national commitment to renewable energy is still needed for the US to become a wind turbine manufacturing powerhouse.”

AWEA says that since the early July announcement of rules to implement the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the wind industry has seen more than 1600 MW of completed projects, and more than 1700 MW of construction starts, which equates to about $6.5 billion in new investment. AWEA does not expect the fourth quarter of 2009 to be as strong as the fourth quarter of 2008, since the 5000 MW now under construction is nearly 38 percent lower than the 8000 MW under construction at this time last year.

In Europe, a report by the European Environment Agency confirmed that wind power has the potential to meet and even exceed the continent’s energy needs. The report, entitled ‘Europe’s Onshore and Offshore Wind Energy Potential’, states that in 2020 the amount of electricity that could be generated from wind power could be as much as three times greater than demand.

Germany, Denmark, Spain, Portugal and Ireland have particularly strong bases in wind power. Figures from the German Wind Energy Association show that 19,460 wind turbines, with a total capacity of 22,247 MW, were installed in country by the end of 2007, and that 39.5 TW of wind electricity were generated during that year, equalling more than seven percent of Germany’s electricity consumption. As of 2009, its installed capacity is 25 GW. Denmark has been vying with Germany for the top spot, with 19.7 percent of electricity production and 24.1 percent of capacity in 2007.

The European Wind Energy Information Network puts the annual median growth of the European wind power market at 35 percent, with EU member countries contributing about 75 percent of the world’s wind power. The wind power market is estimated to have helped create 25,000 jobs within the EU.

Sunny days

“The US solar energy industry grew to new heights in 2008.” So proclaims the Solar Energy Industries Association’s report ‘2008 Year in Review’. The report points out that capacity grew by 1265 MW in 2008, up from 1159 MW installed in 2007. “This brings the total installed capacity up by 16 percent to 9183 MW,” it goes on to say. “Capacity in both photovoltaic (PV) and solar water heating systems grew at record levels. And while no new concentrating solar power plants were completed in 2008, projects totalling more than 6000 MW are in the pipeline, most with signed purchase power agreements. Solar pool heating capacity grew at a slower rate than in 2007, reflecting conditions in the residential real estate market.”

The growth rate was found to be highest for grid-connected PV electric systems, with an increase of 58 percent, to a total of 792 MW. Domestic PV manufacturing capacity also increased by 65 percent, with preliminary estimates putting the total PV manufacturing capacity at 685 MW per year as of the end of 2008.

Photovoltaic solar power also has a strong base in Europe, at least according to the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA). The association recently commissioned a study on PV power in Europe, ‘SET For 2020’, from the management consultancy AT Kearney. The study concludes that PV power can supply as much as 12 percent of Europe’s electricity needs by 2020, assuming appropriate policy-driven support and evolution in the set-up and functioning of the electricity distribution system.

“The fundamentals of the PV industry are and remain strong,” said Secretary General of the EPIA Adel El Gammal at the sixth European Photovoltaic Industry Forum held in September in Hamburg. “It needs an ambitious policy support for the next three to nine years, until photovoltaic power is able to compete with conventional electricity on price.”

Solar thermal power is also growing in the US. The largest solar thermal generating installation in the world – the Solar Energy Generating Systems (SEGS), a group of nine solar thermal power plants – is located in California’s Mojave Desert.  The plants use parabolic trough solar technology along with natural gas and have a combined generating capacity of 354 MW.

On the European side, the European Solar Thermal Industry Federation conducted a study “to provide the European Union and its member states with substantiated information on the contribution solar thermal can make to the 20 percent renewable energy target set by the RES Directive.” Market statistics released by the ESTIF show that the solar thermal market in the EU and Switzerland grew by more than 60 percent to 3.3 GW of new capacity.

Despite the positive messages put out by both sides of the solar energy sector, UMass’s David Levy believes the focus is shifting from PV to thermal. He points out that the economic crisis has prompted several countries, including Germany and Spain, to cut back on subsidies to consumers for the installation of PV panels – although he also underlines the cyclical nature of such interest: “Solar thermal was doing well a few years ago, but then when Luz went bankrupt, many people said, ‘We can’t do solar thermal.'”

Israel-based Luz Partners were the original builders of the SEGS solar thermal plants in California. The company failed in the early 1990s after drastic cuts in federal tax credits to the solar thermal industry.

“In Arizona and the Southwest, we’re seeing much bigger solar thermal installations,” Levy continues, “whereas with solar PV, companies are losing money because of the cut-throat competition. PV is selling below cost, and even so, power generation is still too expensive for grid scale production.”

Further evidence of solar thermal’s resurgence may be exemplified by the re-emergence of Luz as Luz II, now called BrightSource Industries. The new company claims to have advanced solar thermal technology by developing a proprietary design that increases solar-to-thermal conversion efficiency from about 36 percent (for the older parabolic trough technology) to above 40 percent.

Future directions

The US and Europe may both be moving full steam ahead with wind and solar power, but there are other areas in which they remain quite far apart. The US, for example, with its long history of coal-fired power generation, will not easily give up its dependence on carbon. This may explain why it is investing so much time and effort into developing new carbon sequestration technologies, despite widespread disapproval from environmental groups.

In Europe, where the coal lobby is not as strong, carbon capture has a much weaker focus. David Levy also mentions geothermal as a high area of interest in the US, less so in Europe. By contrast, Europe is far more advanced in the development of wave power.

In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter what the differences or similarities are, or who achieves their target first – the US with its can-do attitude under the new administration, or Europe, with its stronger historical groundwork. What matters is that we get there, somehow. The future of our planet depends on it.

Renewables in Europe

EU countries with the highest share of renewable consumption to gross final energy consumption:
Sweden 41.3 %
Latvia 31.4%
Finland 28.9%
Austria 25.1%
Portugal 21.5%
Denmark 17.2%
Romania 17%
Estonia 16.6%
Slovenia 15.5%
Lithuania 14.6%


US wind power

The top five states in total operating wind capacity are:
Texas 8797 MW
Iowa 3053 MW
California 2787 MW
Minnesota 1805 MW
Oregon 1659 MW

Solar energy systems

A photovoltaic system uses solar cells to convert light into electricity. It contains multiple components, including cells, mechanical and electrical connections and mountings and means of regulating and/or modifying the electrical output. Because each individual cell has a low voltage (typically 0.5V), several cells are combined into photovoltaic modules, which are then connected together into an array.

Solar thermal technology harnesses solar energy for thermal energy (heat). Solar thermal collectors are defined as low-, medium-, or high-temperature. Low temperature collectors are flat plates generally used to heat swimming pools. Medium-temperature collectors are also usually flat plates, but are used for creating hot water for residential and commercial use. High temperature collectors concentrate sunlight using mirrors or lenses and are generally used for electric power production.

Other renewable energy sources

European bioethanol production equalled 1592 m litres in 2006. Germany is the leading producer in Europe, at 431 m litres, with Spain running a close second with 396 m litres. France was the third largest European producer in 2006 with 293 m litres.

According to the US Department of Energy, bioenergy ranks second to hydropower in renewable primary energy production and accounts for three percent of the primary energy production in the United States.

Wave power
The first 2.25 MW of electricity produced from wave power was expected to be brought ashore by submarine cable at Aguçadoura, in northern Portugal, in October. The electrical energy produced will be enough to power 1500 homes.

In the United States, the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative is funding the building of a commercial wave-power park at Reedsport, Oregon. The project will use a system of modular, ocean-going buoys: the rising and falling of the waves moves the buoy-like structure, creating mechanical energy that is converted into electricity and transmitted to shore over a submerged transmission line.

Comments are closed.