Solar and wind continue to dominate investment in new renewable capacity. Global use of solar and wind energy grew significantly in 2012. Solar power consumption increased by 58 percent, to 93 terrawatt-hours (TWh), while wind power increased by 18.1 percent, to 521.3 TWh.

Global investment in solar energy in 2012 was $140.4 billion, an 11 percent decline from 2011, and wind investment was down 10.1 percent, to $80.3 billion. Due to lower costs for both technologies, however, total installed capacities still grew sharply.

Solar and wind energy investments were down slightly in 2012, though installed capacities still grew sharply (Source: BNEF).

Solar photovoltaic (PV) installed capacity grew by 41 percent in 2012, reaching 100 gigawatts (GW). Installed PV capacity has grown by 900 percent since 2007. The countries with the most installed PV capacity today are Germany (32.4 GW), Italy (16.4 GW), the United States (7.2 GW), and China (7.0 GW). Concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) capacity reached 2.55 GW, with 970 megawatts (MW) alone added in 2012.

Europe remains dominant in solar, accounting for 76 percent of global solar power use in 2012. Germany alone accounted for 30 percent of the world’s solar power consumption, and Italy added the third most capacity of any country in 2012 (3.4 GW). Spain added the most CSP capacity (950 MW) in 2012 as well. However, Italy reached the subsidy cap for its feed-in tariff (FIT) program in June 2013, while Spain recently made a retroactive change in its FIT policies, meaning that growth in solar energy will likely slow in these countries in the near future.

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China, feed-in tariff, Germany, Italy, japan, renewable energy, renewable energy investment, renewable energy policy, solar power, Spain, United States, wind power

In Berlin on Wednesday, President Obama emphasized America’s moral obligation to do more to avert a future of “more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise.” Speaking from Washington, D.C., the top White House climate change adviser, Heather Zichal, followed this statement of intention with hints at more concrete actions, suggesting that President Obama will be implementing carbon dioxide regulations for existing power plants when he reveals his climate change strategy either on Tuesday or in the upcoming weeks.

President Obama, speaking in Berlin last week, reaffirmed commitment to action on climate change. (Source: Flickr user, Matthias Winkelmann)

The regulations on carbon emissions emitted by power plants, the largest individual point sources of carbon pollution in the United States, will be a conscientious step forward. However, with the carbon pollution standard for new power plants still under review, having been delayed past its original intended ruling date in April, the anticipated proposal for existing power plants will not only be even more costly and time consuming, but will likely be met with stronger resistance from Republicans, Democrats, and industries who are worried about the future of coal, slower job growth, and higher energy costs.

These power plant standards come at a time when concerns over climate change impacts are rising significantly.  In order to meet the 2°C Scenario – the official target of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to avoid serious climate change and irreversible damage – the United States would need to at least halve its current emissions (total 6.7 billion metric tons CO2 in 2011 and 5.3 billion metric tons CO2 in 2012), of which power plants accounted for 2.2 billion tons in 2011 and around a third in 2012.

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carbon standard, Climate Change, coal, emissions reductions, EPA, Germany, low-carbon, power plant, United States

The European Union (EU) has undoubtedly been one of the global leaders in spurring the advanced development and deployment of renewable energies worldwide. The vision set forth by the Renewable Energy Directive 2009/28/EC – a directive setting continent-wide targets for all EU-27 member states to increase their share of renewable energy in the national energy mix – continues to stand out as the primary example of a coordinated effort to lead a large-scale energy transformation. While renewable energy targets now exist in 118 countries worldwide, few regional commitments to renewable energy deployment exist, though this trend is beginning to change.

In recent years, certain EU member states have gone beyond what is required under the Directive to set even more ambitious national goals. Denmark, for instance, is now targeting 100 percent renewable energy across their entire energy supply by 2050. These efforts should be applauded and their lessons replicated around the world. However, these successes should not obscure the very serious gap that is emerging between current policies and mechanisms and the significant challenges still facing the European renewable energy sector.

EU 2020 Energy Targets



Final Energy

20% RE share by 2020


10% biofuels by 2020

Energy Efficiency

20% improvement by 2020

A recent European Commission report has outlined the challenging road ahead for member states as they continue down the path towards their 2020 commitments. The Commission’s report sends a mixed message. On one hand, all but 2 countries – Latvia and Malta – met their first interim final energy targets defined under the Directive. In fact, 13 countries even outperformed the target by over 2 percent.

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emissions reductions, EU 20/20/20 policy, European Union, Germany, Greece, renewable energy, renewable energy finance, solar power, Spain, transatlantic power series, wind power

Germany has seen success with solar power, despite having about the equivalent solar resource of Alaska. The U.S. contains vast solar resources, but could use more federal policies to utilize this renewable resource. Trans-Atlantic collaboration could boost the transition to sustainable energy systems on both sides of the Pond. (Source: German-American Chambers of Commerce)

The U.S. and Germany are obligated, as two of the largest economies and historic emitters of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, to lead the global transition to cleaner power systems. Their success or failure in transforming energy systems has immense global signaling effects. Closer cooperation in this innovative sector could revamp a faltering historic partnership.

Germany’s chosen path to a clean energy future is ambitious and unprecedented amongst industrialized countries. The government passed a series of measures in 2011 to simultaneously move away from fossil fuels and phase out nuclear power. Renewable energy is to become the backbone of the country’s energy system – at least 60 percent of the nation’s primary energy consumption and 80 percent of electricity are to come from renewables in 2050. Meanwhile, the last nuclear reactor is to be shut down in 2022. (See the table below for an overview of German energy policy goals).

The country is already a leader in renewable energies. Few countries have a greater installed per capita capacity of renewables, excluding hydropower, than does Germany. Moreover, the government also envisions energy efficiency to be a key component in enabling the clean energy transition. Germany aims to reduce primary energy consumption by 50 percent by 2050 and increase energy productivity, or the GDP produced per unit of energy, by 2.1 percent per year.

The U.S. trails German ambition and lacks a federal clean energy strategy, but is nonetheless one of the most important and dynamic renewable energy markets in the world. As of the end of 2011, the U.S. led the world in installed biomass and geothermal power capacity, ranked second in total installed renewable power as well as wind power capacity, third in hydropower, and fifth in solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity. While total emissions in the U.S. have historically been higher than most other countries, no other country has seen a larger drop in energy-related greenhouse gas emissions over the past five years. Shifts from coal to natural gas in the power sector, as well as fuel efficiency improvements in the transportation sector, are the main reason for this reduction, but growing investments in renewable energies also contributed to this positive trend.

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energy, Europe, Germany, renewable energy, transatlantic power series, transatlantic relations, United States

I visited Berlin a week after President Obama’s reelection, and came away envious of the strategic clarity and political consensus that mark Germany’s new energy strategy. After months of watching Democrats and Republicans bash each other with vacuous and contradictory rhetoric about where our country’s energy future lies, it was refreshing to see that one of our key allies has a plan—and is implementing it.

Despite having a relatively weak solar resource, strong domestic policy has enabled Germany to dominate the global solar PV market (Source: REN21).

In 2012, Germany got more than 25 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, up from 5 percent in 1995 and 10 percent as recently as 2005. Since 1995, the U.S. share of renewable electricity has hardly budged—going from 10 percent to 11.5 percent.) At the same time, Germany has rapidly increased its energy efficiency, and reduced its carbon dioxide emissions and dependence on imported fossil fuels. Government plans are even more ambitious—at least 80 percent of the nation’s electricity is to come from renewables in 2050.

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China, Climate Change, Climate Policy, coal, energy policy, France, Germany, green transition, Italy, nuclear, renewable energy, solar power, United States, wind power

Last Sunday marked the first anniversary of an unprecedented catastrophe that struck northern Japan. On March 11, 2011, a tsunami—triggered by a major earthquake—swept into the area surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, disabling the cooling capabilities of three of the plant’s oldest reactors. In the days and weeks that followed, as workers struggled to cool and dismantle the plant, reactors 1, 2, and 3 went into meltdown. A series of explosions and fires led to the release of radioactive gas, and fears of contamination ultimately prompted the evacuation of approximately 100,000 people from the immediate area; some 30,000 may never be able to return to their homes.

The Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant, 25 March 2011 (Source: econews)

The first anniversary of this horrific event—the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl accident in 1986—is a time to commemorate the more than 20,000 people who died in the initial earthquake and tsunami, as well as the courage of those who risked radioactive exposure to regain control of the plant and prevent further calamity. But it is also a time to look forward—to examine what we have learned from Fukushima and what it means for the future of energy in Japan and around the world.

A “moment of opportunity” for Japan

In the aftermath of the meltdown, the Japanese public turned decidedly against nuclear power, marking a pronounced change in a nation that was once one of the world’s most committed proponents and producers of civilian atomic energy. Japan has been using nuclear power since the 1960s, and in 2010 it generated 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants. In the past year, however, the vast majority of nuclear facilities in Japan have been shut down for routine maintenance or “stress tests” and have not yet been reopened. Today, all but two of Japan’s commercial reactors have been shut down, with the last one scheduled to go offline as early as April. The country has also abandoned any existing plans to build new reactors.

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Angela Merkel, Asse, chernobyl, Daiichi, Deepwater Horizon, energy, energy roadmaps, europea, Forsmark, Fukushima, Georgia Power, Germany, japan, Low-Carbon Development, Noda, nuclear, nuclear accidents, nuclear power, nucular energy, Olkiluoto, renewable energy, renewables, Southern Company, Three Mile Island, United States, Upper Big Branch, Vogtle, Waynesboro, Yucca Mountain

This coming weekend (January 14–15), Peace Boat and five other international non-governmental organizations will host the Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World in Yokohoma, Japan. The event was organized in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the resulting disasters at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

An image of the Biblis nuclear power, one of the nuclear power plants permanently shutdown in Germany shortly after the events at Fukushima (Source: The Open University).

The overarching goal of the conference is to facilitate discussion of a nuclear power free world. Regional and international experts, activists, and people affected by radiation exposure from nuclear power plants will come together to generate a roadmap promoting the decommissioning of these facilities worldwide. Participants will discuss policies that support renewable energy over nuclear energy and create action plans for implementing these policies in Japan and other countries that depend heavily on nuclear.

The Worldwatch Institute recently published an article, “Global Nuclear Generation Capacity Falls, discussing the current status of the nuclear industry. Last year saw a decline in global nuclear generating capacity, stemming largely from the events at Fukushima and several countries’ reactions. Germany, for example, decommissioned more than 8 gigawatts of nuclear capacity immediately following Fukushima. China, a country that still plans ambitious nuclear capacity growth in the future, suspended its nuclear power plant permitting process pending further review. Japan, which has relied heavily on nuclear energy for decades, took many of its reactors offline, leaving only 10 of its 54 nuclear reactors connected to the grid following the earthquake.

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China, Climate Change, European Union, Germany, japan, nuclear power, renewable energy

Yesterday, the Worldwatch Institute joined Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), Representative Edward Markey (D-MA), the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (or REN21), and a panel of energy experts to celebrate the launch of Renewables 2011 Global Status Report, an integrated analysis of the state of renewable energy around the world. First published in 2005, REN21’s annual report has since become the most heavily cited analysis of renewable energy business and policy.

According to Alexander Ochs, event moderator and Director of Climate and Energy at the Worldwatch Institute, renewable energy today already accounts for about 25 percent of total global power capacity and 20 percent of actual electricity production, percentages that continue to grow quickly. Over the five-year period from the end of 2005 through 2010, total capacity of many technologies including wind, solar, geothermal, hydro and biomass  grew at rates averaging 15 – 50 percent per year. Total global capacity of solar photovoltaics (PV) in 2010 was up as much as 72 percent from just the year before. Little noticed, approximately half of the estimated 194 gigawatts (GW) of new power capacity that was added globally in 2010 were renewables.

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China, Climate Change, developing countries, European Union, Germany, green economy, REN21, renewable energy, United States

Last week I invited Dirk Messner, Director of the German Development Institute (DIE), to Worldwatch for an informal dialogue with the staff.  In addition to his leadership of DIE, Dirk is a professor of political science at the University of Duisburg-Essen as well as Vice-Chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). As a leading expert in the fields of development policy, environmental policy, and global governance, he plays a vital role in addressing key policy and sustainability challenges, as well as advancing the discourse surrounding climate and energy policy.

Like Worldwatch, Dirk is currently struggling with the question of how to facilitate an effective transition to a green global economy, particularly under the impact of shifting demographics. While transatlantic institutions have traditionally led international cooperative efforts including on the environment, the rapid ascendance of emerging economies like China and India has fundamentally shifted both actual diplomacy and the intellectual dialogue about it (the New York Times just today published an article on the United States’ waning influence on the global economy).  Dirk outlined several key areas of inquiry regarding this shift including its implications for sustainability, poverty alleviation, security, and democracy. Several recent developments have contributed to this changing landscape of international development and sustainability efforts.

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Climate Change, developing countries, Europe, European Union, Germany, green economy, low-carbon

While U.S. policymakers remain hesitant to contemplate the transition to a low-carbon economy, Germany’s energy transition is already under way. At two Washington, D.C. events on Monday, October 3 (Germany’s Unity Day holiday), Franz Untersteller, Environment Minister for the German State of Baden-Württemberg, discussed his country’s efforts to phase out nuclear power and heavily promote renewable energy in the coming decades. Germany’s decision this spring to phase out nuclear energy by 2020 has been regarded as a controversial path to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling climate change. At a panel titled Leading the Way or Lights Out? Germany’s Nuclear Exit and U.S. Energy Perspectives held at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies (SAIS), Minister Untersteller described how Germany plans to achieve both the nuclear phase-out and the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Minister Untersteller has been Environment Minister of the State of Baden-Württemberg in the Green-Social Democratic government since the March 2011 regional elections. Baden-Württemberg is a highly industrialized German state that is home to global industrial players such as Mercedes, Porsche, and Bosch. The region could serve as a model for other very industrialized areas in showing how high energy intensity can be combined with CO2 emissions reductions. Untersteller described the German government’s nuclear exit strategy as “irreversible,” not just because the amendments to the Nuclear Energy Act were supported by an agreement of all parties in the German Bundestag, but also because the strategy is based on broad popular consensus. The nuclear phase-out by 2020 is accompanied by several other elements:

  • A substantial rise in the share of renewable energy in the country’s energy mix, projected to reach 38 percent of the national electricity supply by 2020, compared to 20 percent today and 6 percent in 2000;
  • The construction and use of flexible natural gas power plants;
  • Infrastructure adaptation, especially high investment in the electric power grid; and
  • Increase in energy efficiency, including a further decoupling of energy use from economic growth.

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Baden-Württemberg, Climate Change, energy, energy policy, European Union, Franz Untersteller, Germany, greenhouse gases, nuclear, phase-out, Untersteller