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

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

A skyrocketing PV market in Italy. Will it soon find its right flying altitude?

Feed-in tariffs (FiTs) have spurred impressive growth in renewable power installations over the last decade. In Europe, 77 percent of all new electricity generation capacity from renewable sources installed between 1997 and 2008 occurred in countries using FiTs, making the continent the world’s largest renewables market. FiTs have also proven to be relatively popular: since 2005, 38 countries worldwide have adopted the measures (which reward renewable electricity producers with a determined tariff for the electricity they feed into the grid), whereas only 12 have introduced renewable portfolio standards (regulations requiring that a specified share of electricity come from renewable energy sources).

Yet while FiTs can create incentives for renewable energy deployment, proper design is critical. As some governments have already discovered, inflexible and overly high feed-in tariffs can cause renewable energy markets to overheat.

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Czech, feed-in tariffs, FiT, Germany, Italy, market, photovoltaics, renewable energy, solar power, Spain

Spain committed to heavy rail investments beginning in the late 1980s.  The country now has the largest high-speed rail construction program in Europe, and its network recently surpassed France’s in length.  Its track length rose from just 470 kilometers in 2002 to about 2,000 kilometers at present.  Government plans call for 10,000 kilometers by 2020, which would allow 90 percent of Spaniards to live within 50 kilometers of a station, and make high-speed rail a meaningful alternative to automobile and air travel for much of the country’s population. (See Map.)

High-speed rail ridership is still small compared with France and Germany, but grew tenfold in 1992–2008 and now accounts for 23 percent of total rail travel in Spain.

Spain's Growing High-Speed Rail Network

In 2004, the Spanish government adopted a new strategic plan for transportation through 2020 called the PEIT (Strategic Plan for Infrastructures and Transport). The plan grew out of a recognition of the uneven quality of domestic rail infrastructure and service, low levels of traffic on some routes, difficulties harmonizing operations with other European railways, and conflicts between rail and urban development.

Remarkably, the plan calls for 44 percent of total transportation investment to be directed toward rail, primarily for expansion of the high-speed network. (See Table below, derived from Michael Renner and Gary Gardner, Global Competitiveness in the Rail and Transit Industry, a report available at Worldwatch’s Web site.)

The PEIT is a social, political, environmental, and development plan with transportation at its core. It seeks to integrate rail with other systems of transport; boost rail’s share of trips undertaken; ensure that traditionally underserved areas of Spain are integrated with the rest of the country; provide a high level of quality of service across the entire system; and adopt the latest railroad technology.

In 2010, with Spain deeply mired in the global recession, the government turned to infrastructure investments, especially in rail, as a way to stimulate the economy while accelerating the modernization for the country’s transportation system. Its two-year Extraordinary Infrastructure Plan, rolled out in April 2010, promised to invest some 17 billion Euros (about $24 billion) in transportation.

Unlike the prevailing priorities in the United States (where 80 percent of federal transportation funds go to highways and just 17 percent to public transportation), 70 percent of funds will go to rail and 30 percent to highways. High-speed rail tracks will see $8.3 billion in new investment in 2010 alone. This is about as much as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) makes available.  But on a per capita basis, it is almost seven times as much.

high-speed, infrastructure, investment, Policy, rail, Spain, transportation, US

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).

European Union, France, Germany, high-speed, infrastructure, Italy, japan, rail, Spain, track, transportation, United Kingdom

Here is another installment in our series of blog posts on rail developments.  Like the earlier posts in the series, this is drawn from our project with the Apollo Alliance that resulted in two reports published last month.

As global ridership on intercity rail and transit continues to grow, many systems around the world are being expanded or newly constructed. This has led to rising orders for rail vehicles and buses. It has also created an opportunity for countries that lead in this sector to benefit greatly from the manufacturing dollars and job creation this will bring.

Currently, some 400 light rail systems with more than 44,000 rail vehicles are in operation worldwide, another 60 systems or so are under construction, and more than 200 are in the planning stage. Europe has the highest density, with 170 systems and more than 7,900 miles of lines in operation and nearly 100 more in various stages of construction or planning. North America has 30 systems in operation and 10 under construction. But Asia and the Pacific is the region with the fastest growth.

Much of the current excitement is directed toward the expansion of high-speed intercity rail (HSR) lines. In 2009, HSR lines totaling some 6,650 miles were operational, including close to 1,490 miles in Japan and about 1,180 miles in France—the two early pioneers. In 2008, European Union members had a combined high-speed network of close to 3,600 miles. The same year, the world’s HSR fleet consisted of some 2,200 trainsets—1,500 in Western Europe and 650 in Asia (mostly in Japan).

These statistics will change rapidly as more countries jump into the fray. By 2015, the number of trainsets in operation worldwide is expected to rise by 70 percent, to 3,725. The front runners, in order of their track-building ambitions between now and 2025, are China, Spain, France, Japan, Turkey, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, the United States, Sweden, Morocco, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, India, Iran, South Korea, Argentina, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland. (In the United States, Amtrak’s existing Acela service in the Northeast Corridor is nominally capable of high-speed service, but infrastructure limitations impose effective lower speeds.)

China is in the process of building the most extensive HSR system worldwide, with a total length of more than 15,000 miles. But the densest network is emerging in Spain, which has a goal of 6,200 miles by 2020. If China were to match Spain’s effort relative to land size, it would have to build 118,000 miles of lines; in proportion to population, it would have to build 180,000 miles.

Likewise, if the United States were to match Spain’s commitment, it would have to build 183,000 and 75,000 miles, respectively. This is many orders of magnitude larger than what is currently on the drawing boards. To get anywhere near the effort that countries like China and Spain are undertaking, the United States will need to make a sustained commitment and create a reliable and sustainable source of funding.

Asia, China, Europe, European Union, high-speed, infrastructure, investment, japan, light rail, North America, rail, Spain, transit, transportation, US, world

Last month, we reported on France’s new climate legislation, the Grenelle de l’Environnement. Today, the focus is on solar power. The French Ministry of Environment has just announced, for the second time this year, that the nation’s feed-in tariffs for solar photovoltaic (PV) will be modified, much to the displeasure of the solar industry.

Sarkozy's government cuts solar FIT by 12% - Flickr Creative Commons / Mike Baker

Feed-in tariffs (FITs) are a financial tool that guarantees producers of renewable energy a specified price for every megawatt-hour of power fed into the grid. They were introduced in France in 2000, and prices during the most recent phase were set by a 2006 resolution.

This year, Sarkozy’s government already has decided to reform the solar FIT twice. First, a resolution was introduced on January 12 establishing new categories and tariffs for three PV applications: built-in rooftop solar panels (58 EUR cents/kilowatt-hour in mainland France except Corsica), rooftop solar panels (42 EUR cents/kWh), and ground-based solar panels (31.4 EUR cents/kWh for those generating less than 250 kilowatt-peak). This new resolution led to a general decrease in tariffs, especially for solar industry professionals, since many of them could no longer benefit from the highest tariff. The government introduced the resolution following a dramatic increase in the number of PV projects and to keep up with decreasing production costs. The FITs were supposed to be enforced until 2012 and then phased out gradually starting in 2013 as the industry gained in competitiveness.

But the government did not settle for these new tariffs and announced on August 23 that a general cut of the tariffs by 12 percent would take effect on September 1. Only individual installations generating less than 3 kWp will still be granted the 58 EUR cents/kWh tariff, in order to “preserve employment growth in this sector,” the Ministry of Environment and the Department of the Treasury said.

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climate, Climate Policy, energy, feed-in tariffs, France, Germany, Grenelle, renewable energy, Sarkozy, solar power, Spain

High-tech equipment, precision instruments, and miles of electrical wiring at the Siemens production facility in Krefeld, Germany, might fool you into thinking that what’s being manufactured here is an airplane, or perhaps even a space shuttle. But the roughly 2,000 employees are producing a high-speed train, the so-called Velaro D, which is to go into service in Germany at the end of 2011.

Siemens Pressebild,

At a length of 200 meters, an eight-wagon Velaro trainset seats about 450 people—comparable to some variants of the Boeing 747. The Velaro’s top speed of 400 kilometers per hour doesn’t match that of a long-range plane. But for distances of up to 650 kilometers, and perhaps even as far as 900 kilometers, high-speed trains can be a faster option than air travel, given that the latter involves trips to often remotely located airports, checking and retrieving luggage, cumbersome security measures, etc. Of course, ticket costs and other factors matter as well, but fast trains have drawn passengers away from air travel in a growing number of places, on routes including Tokyo-Osaka in Japan, or Madrid-Barcelona in Spain.

Another advantage of trains is their lower environmental impact. Siemens claims that the Velaro uses as little as 0.33 liters of gasoline-equivalent per seat per 100 kilometers. (That translates into a stunning 713 miles per gallon per seat.) The Velaro’s greenhouse gas emissions per passenger-kilometer would thus be 90 percent lower than those associated with typical air travel.

In growing numbers of countries, there is palpable excitement about high-speed trains, in line with an overall growth in rail investments. According to German consulting firm SCI Verkehr, worldwide operations and capital budgets for all types of rail (passenger and freight) amounted to a combined $590 billion in 2008. The annual market for rail-related goods and services worldwide runs to about $170 billion, up a fifth from 2006.  It is expected to reach $214 billion by 2016.

In 2009, high-speed rail lines totaling 10,700 kilometers were operational worldwide, including more than 2,000 kilometers in Japan—the pioneer in this field—and about 5,800 kilometers in the European Union. (In the EU, high-speed rail travel accounted for a quarter of all train travel, and rose to almost 100 billion passenger-kilometers in 2008; see Figure.) China is on track to build the longest network by far, planned to reach 25,000 kilometers. Relative to territory, Spain’s goal of 10,000 kilometers by 2020 is even more impressive. If China were to match Spain’s effort relative to land size, it would have to build 190,000 kilometers of lines; in proportion to population, it would have to be 290,000 kilometers.

More and more countries are jumping into the fray. Listed in order of their track-building ambitions between now and 2025, in addition to China and Spain they include France, Turkey, Japan, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Italy, Morocco, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, India, Iran, and some others. The United States, too, is eager to join the high-speed league.

Variants of the Velaro are being sold to Spain, Russia, and China. But Siemens is facing intense competition from other manufacturers. Among them is Bombardier, a Canadian company with extensive European manufacturing activities. It has been involved in producing some of the most famous high-speed trains in the world, including the TGV in France, AVE in Spain, ICE in Germany, ETR in Italy, and CRH 1 in China. And along with France’s Alstom, it built Amtrak’s Acela Express—the closest that the United States has to date come to fast intercity rail travel. Spain’s Talgo and CAF are becoming growing competitors. Meanwhile, Kawasaki and other Japanese companies had long focused on their domestic market but are now increasingly pursuing export markets—already successfully in Taiwan, China, India, and the United Kingdom, and competing for contracts in Brazil, Vietnam, and the United States.

And now, Chinese companies—China Northern Locomotive and Rolling Stock (CNR) and China Southern Locomotive and Rolling Stock (CSR)—are increasingly challenging the established producers. The leading foreign manufacturers were lured by the potentially vast market in China. But they could set up shop in China only under stiff local-content requirements and technology transfer agreements.

Without question, the high-speed rail race is heating up—both in terms of building new lines and deciding who manufactures the trains. It’s a critical part of greening the economy.

Alstom, Bombardier, China, climate, European Union, fuel efficiency, Germany, high-speed, japan, manufacturing, rail, Siemens, Spain, transportation
Solar PV panels in Furth, Germany

Solar PV panels in Furth, Germany, image courtesy of Siemens

In an article published Monday, renewable energy expert Paul Gipe documents the rapid advance in Italian solar photovoltaic (PV) installations, noting that Italy’s total PV capacity has now outstripped that of the United States. Despite the current economic crisis, Italy is expected to add 1,500 megawatts of solar PV in 2010 alone, more than doubling its installed capacity to 2,648 megawatts.

The dramatic growth began after Italy introduced a solar feed-in tariff in 2007. New PV capacity increased by five times that year and has doubled annually since. Growth has been dominated by small installations, with distributed rooftop panels making up 93 percent of the country’s capacity.

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feed-in tariffs, Germany, Italy, renewable energy, solar power, Spain