Why the EU is winning the clean energy race

  • The EU signed Kyoto in 1997, and passed laws to lower emissions by 2005. Five years later it had double the wind power of the US, and ten times the solar power.

I know that it has been customary to compare the metrics on renewable energy development within the US as a whole to just one nation within the European Union, but it is misleading, as a comparison of our relative progress, because the US has a bigger economy than any one EU nation such as Germany or Spain, that it is typically compared to.

    So it is time for us to compare the US with the EU as a whole to get an accurate picture, because it is easier for a larger economy to beat a smaller one in anything. This applies in any metric, but especially when comparing things like numbers of wind farms or solar farms, because how many people there are in a given area, and how much electricity they need (to produce and consume what percent of the global GDP) needs to be comparable, or the comparison is nonsensical.

    For a real comparison, the US with its fractious collection of very different red states and blue states held together in something of a union is much more comparable in these ways to the similarly varied states of the EU as a whole, rather than to any one of the nations within it.

    A comparison of the size of the two economies, the population and geographic size suggests that we should be comparing US progress as a whole, not to a single country within the union, but to the whole European Union.
 Our total economies are similar in size. According to the IMF, the EU's economy is $16 trillion and the US' $14 trillion. The EU and the US combined represent about half the global economy. Each puts out between 20% and 25% of the global GDP.

    Our geographic spread is similar. The European Union is about 3.8 million square miles, and the US is a similar 3.6 million square miles. And our numbers are comparable. Although the EU now includes new members Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Monaco, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland, the EU 15 (that signed Kyoto, and implemented the renewable legislation) or the core of the EU, (Germany, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain) is 384 million people, and the US population is 313 million.

    These three similarities mean that comparing progress between the two unions – one of states, and one of nations – makes a lot more sense in comparing the US progress on solar, for example, than comparing it with that of one EU nation. There are only 46 million people in Spain, which has a GDP of $1 trillion, so its economy is hardly comparable with the entire $14 trillion US economy.

    How does US progress look when compared to the entire EU? Not good.

    The EU as a whole is far further along the clean economy road than the US, since signing Kyoto in 1997, and implementing feed in tariffs and cap and trade by 2005 to lower emissions. Five years later it had double the wind power of the US, and ten times the solar power.

    The EU has 84 GW of wind power capacity installed as of 2010, according to the AWEA. The US has about half that, at 43 GW.
 EU solar power capacity totaled 29 GW through 2010; ten times the cumulative grid-connected PV in the US of 3 GW as of 2010, according to a GTW report quoted by EarthTechling, or to be precise only 2.6 GW confirmed by SEIA figures – which includes all types of solar, not just PV, and counts residential, commercial, industrial and utility-scale installations.

    While the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) made a huge investment in utility-scale solar that is now beginning to break through the lengthy review process – so that there is at least 17 GW in the pipeline now as of mid-2011 – even this 'Manhattan Project' jump in the level of investment will only bring the US up to two thirds of what the EU had installed as of 2010.

    This one-time heroic lift for renewables and climate action was accomplished in the rare few months of 2009 (before Kennedy died) when the US had functional Democratic majorities big enough to overcome Republican obstruction. It is sad that voters in the US are not aware that that represents what could be accomplished again, and added to, if they could get those majorities in the House and Senate once more.

    But US voters are increasingly so dismayed and baffled by what the media tells them is simply "congress" that now only 48% of US voters even bother to vote, far below the rates of the 1960s and 1970s, when the US passed the Clean Air Act. 

    By contrast, most EU countries have over 80% voting participation, and their EU-wide energy legislation is much more 99%-friendly as a result. 

But just how far ahead they are was a shock to me in researching this. Comparing wind and solar capacity as of the end of 2010, the EU had between twice and ten times the US amount. That is pretty sobering.

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