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

More than a year-and-a-half after the tsunami and resulting nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japanese policymakers are trying to figure out what to do about Japan’s power-generation future. In September, the government released a document titled “Revolutionary Energy and Environment Strategy,” which proposes to eliminate all nuclear generation in Japan by 2040. While the general public continues to support a transition away from nuclear power in Japan, business leaders have argued that such a change would increase energy costs, thereby making Japanese companies less competitive in an already increasingly competitive East Asian market.

Japan pays incredibly high rates to import LNG, which has become only worse since Fukushima and is driving up energy prices.

Close to one-third of Japan’s power generation came from nuclear prior to Fukushima, and before the tsunami, there had even been discussion of increasing the share of nuclear to 50 percent with hope that this would help the country reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Now that much of the population wants to phase-out nuclear by 2040, Japan faces an interesting question of what to do with its power sector in the future.

One solution, and what Japan has largely done in the short-term, is to rely more heavily on fossil fuels. After Fukushima, Japan began importing more natural gas and oil to make up for its loss of nuclear generation, and the share of fossil fuel generation in its electricity mix rose to 73 percent (a level not seen in decades) by early 2012. The problems with this increase, however, are numerous.

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electricity, energy policy, feed-in tariff, japan, natural gas, nuclear, oil, renewable energy, sustainability

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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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
The Kyoto Protocol (KP) still sits in troubled waters, as three of its signatory countries threaten to jump ship on its continuation beyond 2012

(Photo: The Adopt a Negotiator Project) The Kyoto Protocol (KP) still sits in troubled waters, as three of its signatory countries threaten to jump ship on its continuation beyond 2012.

Governments just finished another round of negotiations in Bonn, Germany under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. If the international climate talks are a ship, the last two weeks’ voyage saw equal parts clear sailing, stormy seas, and listless drifting, as nations advanced toward agreements on addressing ocean carbon storage and clean technology transfer, fought over the future of the Kyoto Protocol, and wasted nearly three days just trying to agree on the agenda for parts of the meeting.

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This post is excerpted from an upcoming Worldwatch report on nuclear power in a post-Fukushima world.

With the crisis at Fukushima still unfolding as of early April 2011, the long-term impact of the disaster remains highly uncertain. In mid-March, however, London-based bank HSBC undertook a first analysis of some of the areas where the nuclear sector has been and might be affected. These include:

  • Safety reviews of reactors in several countries (e.g., Germany, Spain, Switzerland, the U.K., and the United States);
  • Immediate shutdown of older reactors (e.g., Germany);
  • Limited or no further lifetime extensions for aging reactors (e.g., Germany, the U.K., the United States);
  • Suspension of new plant approvals (including in China, which was expected to account for 40 percent of new installations over the next decade);
  • Review of reactors under construction in seismically active zones;
  • Higher safety and other costs (as yet hard to quantify) for new and existing nuclear facilities that would render nuclear power less economic or uneconomic; and
  • Re-evaluation of planned energy policy in all nuclear countries, with a greater focus on energy efficiency measures and natural gas and renewables installations.

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Fukushima, japan, nuclear, nuclear power, renewables, stock markets
Person walking up long path

Source: treehugger.com

The most recent negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change just concluded in Bangkok, Thailand. While some progress toward international climate change action was achieved, the talks were full of mostly minor diplomatic victories on procedural and scheduling issues. Big questions, especially the fate of the Kyoto Protocol and a new global climate agreement, remain unanswered. Meanwhile, worldwide carbon pollution continues to rise.

The Bangkok negotiations lasted from April 3—8 and marked the first session of the 2011 global climate meetings. Governments spent most of their time trying to agree on a schedule of what to decide on in 2011 meetings. So, if you thought climate talks already had been tough to follow, try listening to negotiators negotiate about what they are going to negotiate about later. On the final day, countries ultimately agreed on a workplan for the rest of the year. The two key areas of work are: figuring out if and how to keep the current Kyoto Protocol alive; and continuing to develop a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, one that will involve a larger range of countries cutting their climate pollution.

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While the nuclear fallout from Japan’s Fukushima plant is unlikely to reach Europe, the political fallout is already arriving in the capitals of the European Union. The EU is considering “stress testing” its 143 nuclear power stations to ensure they can cope with crises. The EU’s energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, even raised the prospect of a nuclear-free future.

Is the sun finally setting on Nuclear Power?

This represents a dramatic turnaround for a continent that until last week had been considering a partial nuclear revival. This revival was prompted by the EU’s rush to achieve its low-carbon emission goals, but public mistrust of nuclear technology has lingered throughout the region following the Chernobyl accident, the 25th anniversary of which is this year. Nuclear power plants generate one-seventh of Europe’s electricity and the plants’ ages range from a relatively young 10 years in France to Soviet-era installations in Eastern Europe.

Nowhere is the debate on nuclear power more volatile than in Germany. Under the previous coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, Germany decided in 2002 to phase out all 17 of its nuclear plants by 2020. But the current Christian Democrat-Liberals coalition under Chancellor Angela Merkel overturned this policy in 2009. In October 2010, Germany extended the lifetime of its nuclear plants by 12 years in a decision that would keep the last plants on line until the mid 2030s.

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Shortly before Christmas last year, Spain passed a milestone. The country’s prime minister and king attended a ceremony for the opening of a roughly 400-kilometer high-speed railway line connecting the capital Madrid with the third-largest city of Valencia. That brought Spain’s high-speed network to a total of about 2,000 kilometers, surpassing France’s 1,960 kilometers.

France became Europe’s pioneer of high-speed rail service in 1981 (following Japan, which initiated its Shinkansen trains in 1964 and now has about 2,400 kilometers of track). Spain only entered the high-speed league in 1992, when a line linking Madrid and Sevilla opened. All three countries demonstrate that passenger rail can be a highly attractive and thoroughly competitive transportation option.

France still reigns supreme in Europe by yardsticks other than track length. In 2008, the latest year for which the European Commission offers data, French travelers racked up 52.6 billion passenger kilometers in high-speed rail travel. Second-place Germany had a mere 23.3 billion pkm, followed at a distance by Italy (8.9 billion pkm) and then Spain (5.5 billion pkm).

These figures reflect the fact that France’s high-speed system has been around for a longer time than those in neighboring countries and is thus well established. But France has been able to build up substantial ridership by ensuring that its fast trains (trains à grande vitesse, or TGV) are “TGV pour tous”—that is, affordable for everyone. Thus, discounts are available for the poor, the young, the old, the sick, and large families.

Including all rail trips, fast and slow, France leads the continent with 85 billion passenger kilometers, just slightly more than its neighbor Germany (82 billion passenger km). The United Kingdom and Italy follow at a distance with 52.7 and 49.8 billion pkm, respectively, and Spain with 24 billion pkm. In France, an astounding 62 percent of all train travel took place on high-speed lines in 2008. On the continent as a whole, the average share was one-quarter.

The Figure to the right adjusts rail travel data for the different population sizes of Europe’s five largest countries. Spain still ranks behind France, Germany, and Italy in high-speed travel, but the country’s enormous efforts to expand its tracks (which another Green Economy post will explore) will surely change the picture in years to come. Already, the popular Madrid-to-Barcelona line has drawn many people who formerly traveled by air, and RENFE, Spain’s rail operating agency, expects to quadruple its market share of the Madrid-Valencia distance to 41 percent, again mostly at the expense of airline travel.

To understand why people switch, there is no better way than to experience Spanish rail yourself.  I still recall the pleasant experience of traveling from Sevilla to Cordoba on the AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) train back in 2006. The trains are not just fast, but reliable and comfortable. In today’s world where air travel involves many hours wasted getting to and from airports and waiting at flight gates, and ever-more intrusive security measures, train travel offers an enjoyable alternative.

Spain and its European neighbors remain among the global rail leaders. In 2008, people in the 27 member countries of the European Union traveled 409 billion pkm on all types of intercity and commuter trains. Amazingly, however, that was just slightly more than the rail volume in Japan (405 billion pkm). Given that Japan’s population is just a little over one-quarter that of the EU, that makes the Japanese the world’s rail travel champion. (See Table.)

Passenger Rail Travel and Population Size, 2008

Billion Passenger Kilometers Population (Million) Travel per Capita (Billion pkm)
European Union 409 495 826
United States 37 305 121
Japan 405 128 3,164
China 778 1,325 587
Russia 176 142 1,239

Source: European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy and Transport, EU Energy and Transport in Figures, Statistical Pocketbook 2010 (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2010), p. 106 (for rail statistics); Population Reference Bureau, 2008 World Population Data Sheet (Washington, DC: 2009) (for population data).

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Look Ma, No Rare Earths!

You’ve probably heard plenty about rare earths in the past few weeks and months. How many other commodities have earned their own New York Times debate? China’s dominance in production and processing of rare earths, and the recent actions it has taken to lower the amount of these substances on the world market, have thrust this previously quiet corner of industry into the limelight.

Rare earths have a wide variety of applications, including in cell phones, computer hard drives, and military equipment such as precision munitions and avionics. Much of the current discussion also focuses on wind turbines and hybrid and electric cars, as these products are the source of much of the forecasted growth in rare earths usage. But the necessity of using rare earths in these clean energy applications is not a foregone conclusion.

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Australia, China, electric vehicles, energy security, European Union, hybrid vehicles, japan, rare earths, United States, wind power