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Renewing the Globe? Europe Leads the Way in Energy Alternatives
(Released April 2012)

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  by Ethan Goffman  

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Over at least the past decade, Western Europe has been the global leader in moving toward renewable energy.
Statistics on EU energy use and greenhouse gas emissions
Statistics on EU energy use and greenhouse gas emissions

The arc of modern renewable energy has changed over its 40 year history. In the form of water power, as well as in windmills, some form of renewable energy has served humanity for centuries. However, the idea of renewable energy, including solar panels and wind turbines, taking over a major part of the work done by fossil fuels is newer; it began in the United States in the 1970s, largely as a response to a series of oil crises due to disruptions in the Middle East. As oil once again became cheap in the 1980s, the dream of renewable energy faded in the United States. More recently, the locus of renewable energy has moved to Western Europe—an affluent area concerned with climate change—particularly following the 1997 signing of the Kyoto Protocol, the global treaty designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Europe is now the most widespread user of renewable energy; overall, renewables supplied 4% of European energy consumption in 2004 and 9% in 2009 (Key Figures). The pace of growth continues to accelerate; indeed, “more renewable power capacity was installed during 2011 than any other year, an increase of 37.7% compared to 2010” (Wilkes et al). By 2011, installed power capacity of renewables constituted a whopping 31.1% of European energy (Wilkes et al). The caveat is that this is not the same as energy actually produced, as renewables often operate at a lower capacity than other forms of energy due to intermittency. And cars in Europe remain nearly 100% dependent on fossil fuel. Nevertheless, between 1990 and 2010, a period of robust economic growth, the European Union lowered climate change emissions 15.5% (Eckstein).

Europe has provided the world with the most political will in fighting climate change and other environmental problems. In stark contrast to the United States, with its continuing skepticism about the reality of human-caused global warming, much of Europe considers climate change an established fact. In a recent poll, “more than two Europeans in three see climate change as a very serious problem and nearly 80% consider that taking action to combat it can boost the economy and jobs” (Eckstein). Europe therefore has instituted a series of aggressive measures to implement renewable energy. In December of 2008, the European Parliament and Council agreed to a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 20% from 1990 levels by 2020. In the same time period, Europe is aiming to increase the share of renewables in energy consumption to 20% and to increase energy efficiency by 20%. Europe also is targeting at least 10% of transportation energy to derive from renewable sources (Europe’s Onshore and Offshore). All of this is just a start. By 2050, Europe is targeting an 80% reduction of greenhouse emissions.

Beyond global warming, geopolitical security is an important reason for the turn to renewables. The European Union is dependent on a few key players for its oil and gas supplies, notably Norway for gas, OPEC for oil, and the Russian Federation for both (Key Figures). Given the political uncertainty and intermittent hostility of some of these sources, Europe is searching for energy independence, of which renewable energy is a key part. That the Russian Federation cut gas supplies in 2006 and again during the cold winter of 2009, followed by a slowing of gas supplies in the extremely cold winter of 2012, highlights Europe’s vulnerability.

Despite its commitment, at times Europe has paid a high price for relatively small benefits. Germany’s innovative feed-in tariff has enabled a record installation of solar panels; however, Germany is an overcast country unsuitable for solar power, and its energy costs have risen significantly as a result. Yet Europe’s innovations are paving the way for other global regions to move toward renewable energy. Wind power has spread significantly in China and the United States. Meanwhile, the price for solar panels has come down dramatically, largely due to inexpensive manufacturing in China. As a result, the European renewable industry has faced strong competition; “In 2009, investment in renewable energy fell in the EU by 10% . . . while it increased by more than 50% in China” (Key Figures). In 2010, China’s Suntech Power became the world leader in photovoltaic cell manufacturing, while European solar manufacturing has been shrinking (Photovoltaic Barometer). While Europe’s push for renewable energy has created jobs, they have not necessarily been European jobs.

Nevertheless, Europe is moving ahead with blueprints for an almost complete reliance on renewable energy by 2050. Newer plans for a unified electrical grid offer great promise for delivering power—solar from the sunny south, from the Mediterranean region and North Africa, as well as wind from the North Atlantic—to whatever part of Europe needs it. However, the initial cost of such a grid is high, and the European financial crisis makes paying for it difficult. The vision of a united Europe leading the way to a renewable, sustainable future is still alive, but threatened.

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