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Obama should examine America’s renewables rank

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In his stirring acceptance speech, re-elected President Barack Obama noted that climate change would be on the agenda in his second administration – despite its marked absence during the campaign.

Obama then tried to unify a divided country by closing with a popular American rallying cry of how the US “is the greatest nation on earth” and our best days as a nation are yet to come.

Considering the resounding defeat of the fossil-fuel industry’s propaganda campaign against President Obama, and his new found interest in climate change, just where does the US rank relative to its development of renewable energy?

Yes, the US has more installed renewable energy generating capacity than many other countries. But the US is also a large country and is one of the world’s most populous. Yet, relative to its population, the US is well behind in the development of its solar, wind, biogas, and geothermal energy compared to that in many other countries.

Solar

What prompted the following comparison of renewable energy development per capita, was the surprising announcement by Renewables International that the Czech Republic had reached the threshold of 2,000 MW of installed solar photovoltaic (solar PV) capacity. This development had been preceded earlier this year by the unexpected success of solar PV in Great Britain where 1,300 MW had been installed due to their wildly popular feed-in tariff. And then this week came reports that Australia, another unknown market for solar PV, had surpassed 2,000 MW of installed capacity.

These events call into question just what the renewable industry and, more importantly, what the American renewable trade press call a success.

Consider for example, the news from Australia. If estimates of installed capacity by mid-year are correct, Australia will have caught up with California in total installed solar PV and will substantially have surpassed California in solar PV installed per capita (0.8 kW per capita vs. 0.5 kW per capita). This is nothing short of remarkable.

A combination of conditions makes these events seem so unlikely. Australia is dominated by the fossil-fuel industry: the country is a major exporter of coal, mostly to Asia. Britain is notably cloudy, wet, and windy and the ruling conservative coalition has a penchant for fossil fuels and nuclear over renewables. And if one was to believe all the dire trade news, solar PV in the Czech Republic was dead–and buried.

In looking at selected markets for solar PV worldwide, the accomplishments of several countries stand out relative to the US. Most well known are Germany and Italy.

Up to mid-2012, Germany had installed 20 times more solar PV capacity per capita than the entire US; Italy had installed 14 times more per capita.

The solar industry in the US is on track to have its best year ever as huge new central-station solar power plants are coming on line. Analysts expect the US to install 3,500 MW of new solar PV this year. Even so, Germany will install twice as much at a fraction of the cost as the US, and Italy will install far more than the US on a population adjusted basis.

While Italy remains second fiddle to Germany in total installations worldwide, growth of new solar PV installations continued robustly with nearly 2,500 MW installed in the first half of 2012. If growth continues at this pace, Italy could install as much if not more solar PV capacity in absolute terms as the US this year.

Due to falling hardware prices, feed-in tariffs have been cut dramatically in the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Greece, and France. These countries all have substantial fleets of PV systems already in operation, and more capacity is continuing to be installed despite the lower tariffs.

The Czech Republic, the poster child for government reaction to stop a booming solar sector, has nine times more solar PV capacity than the US and, as noted, will exceed 2,000 MW of total installed capacity by the end of 2012.

Spain, similarly afflicted with a reactionary attempt to rein in massive solar PV development, still has five time more solar PV per capita as the US.

But, it’s the Australian market that has taken analysts by surprise. With its federal system, each state, as well as the capital territory have their own solar policy, making it difficult for the trade press to follow the pace of development.

The Australian solar boom has been powered by a mix of policies among the different states: feed-in tariffs, capital subsidies, and net metering. Some jurisdictions have used feed-in tariffs in combination with capital subsidies. No one should be surprised that a boom was the result.

The Czech Republic, Spain, Greece, and Australia all have installed more solar PV capacity per capita than the one-time green powerhouse of California.

New Jersey has installed almost twice as much solar PV capacity per capita as California. Despite New Jersey’s success, recent American press reports continue to label California as a “green leader”. Could regional bias be at work? What makes California “greener” than New Jersey in reference to solar PV?

And in the “great white north,” the province of Ontario, Canada has installed as much solar PV per capita as California after only a few short years of Ontario’s troubled feed-in tariff program.

Another unsung success story is solar PV in France, a country more associated with nuclear power than with solar energy. France has installed almost as much solar PV per capita as California. In 2012, France has nearly doubled total installed solar PV capacity from 1,500 MW to nearly 3,000 MW by mid-year. Is pro-nuclear France greener than anti-nuclear California?

Admittedly, new contracts have ground to a halt in France after the previous government of Nicolas Sarkozy effectively strangled new solar development. Despite President Sarkozy’s attempt to kill the solar industry, there is a substantial backlog of projects–more than 1,500 MW–that will come on line in the coming months. Thus, France will continue to rival California in solar PV capacity per capita well into 2013 and possibly beyond.

One of the most surprising successes has been Denmark. In less than one year, Denmark has installed nearly 100 MW of solar PV through a traditional subsidy program. The rapid growth of solar in Denmark has surprised everyone, including the Danes. While small in absolute terms, Denmark has leapt ahead of the US in solar PV per capita after only a few months even though the US has been developing solar energy for decades.

Last week Denmark’s minister of energy introduced new legislation that may extend solar PV development further. In what appears to be a net-generation feed-in tariff, the minister proposes that Denmark pay DKK 1.30 ($0.22 USD) per kWh for excess generation from solar PV systems less than 6 kW. The bulk of self-generation will offset the Danish retail price of electricity, the highest in Europe. This could extend Denmark’s solar boom.

Among the markets selected, the US leads only China in solar PV capacity per capita.

Wind

The US fares better in wind than in solar PV, but it still lags many countries particular the true leader in wind: Denmark.

When California faltered in the late 1980s after the first tax-credit driven “wind rush”, Denmark–and Northern Europe in general–picked up the mantle of leadership in wind energy development both in absolute terms and in capacity per capita.

Denmark operates nearly five times more wind capacity per capita than the US and a majority of that is owned by its own citizens.

Spain has installed more than three times as much wind capacity per capita as the US.

Installations per capita in France are behind those in the US. Nevertheless, wind in both countries face similar obstacles. As in the US, an unstable policy environment in France threatens continued growth of wind energy.

Wind was seen as a threat to incumbent state-generator Electricité de France (EDF), consequently former President Sarkozy place onerous new restrictions on wind development. Only 250 MW of new wind capacity was installed in France by mid-year, half of that typically installed.

The new government of Francois Hollande has yet to put their stamp on renewable energy policy and instead have deferred action until a “national debate” on energy is completed. If Hollande chooses a rapid development path, France could surpass the US in installed capacity per capita. If Hollande doesn’t take corrective action soon, France will likely miss its 2020 renewable targets.

Geothermal

Though the US has the most installed geothermal generating capacity in the world, it still substantially trails many countries in capacity per capita.

Iceland remains in a class by itself with nearly 200 times more geothermal capacity per capita than the US.

New Zealand, one of geothermal energy’s pioneers, remains a leader with 14 times more geothermal per capita than the US.

Biogas

Biogas remains the renewable energy technology most under appreciated in the US.

Industry analysts and renewable policy advocates alike often overlook biogas because the technology isn’t seen as “sexy” as solar PV or wind. Yet in Germany, biogas alone will generate more than 20 TWh this year. That’s as much as all of Germany’s famed solar PV produced in 2011.

With the exception of dairy farmers in New England and the Midwest, there has been very little development of biogas generation in the US compared to Europe in either absolute terms or in capacity per capita.

German farmers operate nearly 200 times more biogas capacity per capita as American farmers. Austria operates 60 times more biogas capacity per capita as the US.

In conclusion, the US lags many of its peers internationally in the development of renewable energy technologies.

While the boom in US solar PV installations in 2012 is good news for the American renewable industry, the development of geothermal and biogas remain stalled relative to the success seen in other countries. Worse, the failure of Congress to extend the federal tax-credit for wind energy has caused the market for wind in 2013 to collapse.

Rather than leading renewable energy development, the US is in danger of slipping further behind its peers.

As President-elect Obama weighs how best to tackle climate change in his second term, and as Congress grapples with the budget and “entitlements”, maybe now is the opportune time for the nation to consider sweeping revision of its renewable energy policies that go well beyond traditional tax subsidies and Renewable Portfolio Standards. It could well be the time for the US to consider a comprehensive suite of policies that have worked so well elsewhere.

These policies, for example, can be found in Germany’s Renewable Energy Sources Act. This law grants all renewable generators the right to connect to the grid, the right to be paid for their electricity, and–most importantly–spells out how much they will be paid and for how long.

Most of the jurisdictions leading in renewable energy development worldwide incorporate these principles within their renewable energy policy in one form or another. Maybe it is time for the US to do so as well.

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