Lessons from the Gulf of Mexico: US Needs a National Energy Policy like Europe’s
By Steven Hill, May 17, 2010, Social Europe Journal
With the spectre of the Greek default crisis still hanging over Europe, it may seem like Europe can’t do anything right. But with hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic black oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the United States could learn plenty from Europe about energy policy.
By forging ahead with widespread implementation of innovative conservation practices, renewable energy technologies and fuel efficient transportation, Europe has managed to reduce its ‘ecological footprint’ to half that of the United States for the same standard of living. The average European emits half the carbon of an average American and uses far less electricity. How has Europe managed to achieve this? Through smart, strategic government policy, working closely with the private sector, to advance incentives and regulations that encourage the necessary behaviour from consumers, households and businesses.
During the past decade, as the US has resorted to increasingly desperate strategies to secure more oil – whether Middle East wars under Bush-Cheney or more offshore drilling under Obama – the European landscape has been slowly transformed by new conservation and renewable energy technologies that look like something out of a sci-fi movie. Picture windmills, tidal turbines, and solar panels on rooftops, dotting the European landscape. Imagine large cylindrical ‘sea snakes’ bobbing in the ocean, transforming wave motion into electric power. Or vast solar arrays with tens of thousands of panels that have tracking technology to follow the sun, and ‘smart’ energy-efficient buildings that monitor the temperature and sunlight to open and close window panels and blinds automatically. Imagine harnessing the body warmth of 250,000 daily commuters to produce heat for a nearby office block. Or how about high-speed trains circling it all, linking major cities, whisking passengers in carbon-friendly efficiency. All of these inventions and more are becoming reality in Europe.
Windmills, Tides, and Solar Besides: The European Way of Energy
Europe leads the world in the production of wind power, and Germany leads Europe. All across rural Germany giant windmills line the landscape like rows of a new-fangled crop. Nationwide more than twenty thousand windmills generate 8 percent of the country’s electricity, some 21,000 megawatts (MW) of power, enough to power ten million homes and save an estimated forty-two million tons of carbon dioxide. Germany has plans to build an additional thirty offshore wind farms in the North and Baltic seas. Britain, Spain, Portugal and Sweden also are investing heavily in wind power. Denmark already gets 20 percent of its total power from wind energy. The US has only a third of Europe’s wind power.
Solar power also has surged in Europe, with photovoltaic capacity in the European Union growing at an annual rate of 70 percent in recent years. Other energy forms are being developed, including geothermal, biomass, and small-scale hydro. Harnessing the limitless power of the sea has long been the dream of science fiction, and it is becoming reality in Europe. Imagine taking a windmill and sinking it beneath the sea – that, in effect, is what engineers have done a mile off the British coast. Like a field of windmills, these underwater ‘seamills’ create the possibility of grids of undersea turbines producing thousands of megawatts of carbon-free power.
Portugal is the first country to pioneer an eye-popping new technology known as a ‘sea snake’ or ‘energy eel’. Sea snakes are 100 meter-long floating cylinders that bob semi-submerged in the waves and convert wave motion to power that is then fed into underwater cables and brought to land. Portugal is planning a grid of 30 sea snake segments producing 20 megawatts of power, saving some 30 million tons of carbon emissions. Twenty-five of these grids could power a city the size of Lisbon.
Each country is deploying different technologies and acting as a laboratory for the others. Some countries have set ambitious goals: Sweden already generates 40 percent of its energy needs from renewables. In 2007, Germany generated 14 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, preventing 114 million tons of carbon emissions. Meanwhile the United States generates a paltry 6 percent of electricity from renewables.
Visionary Leadership and Policy
Renewable energy technologies have proliferated in Europe as a result of several factors, the most important of which has been government support, including financial incentives. In Germany, wind and solar power have benefited from laws that require energy companies to pay wind and solar producers three to four times more per kilowatt than the amount paid for power produced from conventional sources. That has created a fertile business climate and economies of scale for renewable technologies to take off. The German government also has spurred demand by establishing a ‘100,000 rooftops program’, which provided low-interest credits for homebuyers of solar systems. Other countries, such as Britain, Denmark, Portugal, and Spain, have followed suit.
Europe’s economy has received a boost as a result of massive investment in the renewable energy sector. Hundreds of thousands of new jobs have been created, and as Germany and other countries have gained in technological expertise, they have begun exporting to markets all over the world, including to China and the United States. Europe’s green industry is realising enormous gains and showing that sound environmental policy does not have to be pitted against the economy.
Conservation – The Best Renewable of All
While Europe’s renewable energy sector is leading the world, most European advances have been more mundane – just better ways of boosting conservation through greater energy efficiency, better mass transportation, and the incorporation of ‘green’ principles into everything from building design to urban planning to flushing toilets. Virtually all the experts agree: in the short term, the cheapest, easiest, and fastest way to reduce carbon emissions and tackle many of the world’s energy shortages is through energy conservation via widespread use of existing technology.
Europe has become a leader in using green building design and construction practices, including for large commercial buildings as well as residential. Buildings are estimated to account for 50 percent of total energy use in newer cities and more than 70 percent in older urban areas. So widespread use of existing technologies offers the promise of large efficiency gains in heating buildings.
Lighting alone accounts for 10 to 15 percent of domestic, and 25 to 30 percent of commercial, power use, making motion sensors and low wattage bulbs important tools in the battle to reduce energy use. The EU has approved the phasing out of incandescent bulbs by 2012, and estimates say that will reduce the EU’s carbon emissions by 25 million tons a year.
Europe also has been pioneering what is known as ‘cogeneration’, or ‘combined heat and power’ (CHP) systems. In conventional electricity generation, only about 35 percent of the fuel is converted into electricity while 65 percent is lost as wasted heat that is belched up the smokestack of the power plant. But cogeneration recaptures the heat and recycles it, achieving an efficiency of up to 90 percent. Denmark is leading the world in warming buildings with cogeneration methods. Hundreds of thousands of Danish homes and other buildings are warmed by surplus heat transported in insulated pipes from power plants. Recycled energy from cogeneration amounts to over 50 percent of all energy used in Denmark today; it makes up nearly 40 percent of all energy used in the Netherlands and Finland, and 20 percent in Germany, Poland, and Portugal, but only 8 percent in the United States. The average Dane now uses half as much electricity per year as the average American.
Since the mid-1990s, all new construction in Europe has had to meet basic requirements for design efficiency, making green architecture an everyday reality. Europe has pioneered the use of natural lighting, cogeneration, solar power, fuel cells, advanced ventilation, motion sensors to switch off lights and control fans, special glass that allows daylight in but keeps heat and ultraviolet rays out and minimizes heat loss in winter, and much more. There’s nothing like this effort on the American landscape. Consequently, the average US building uses roughly a third more energy than its German counterpart. Improving energy efficiency in buildings would translate to a 25 percent reduction in America’s carbon emissions.
Revolution on Wheels
In the transportation sector, Europe has gone both high and low tech. It is leading in the development of mass public transit, high-speed trains, and fuel-efficient autos (including the use of non–petroleum powered vehicles such as electric plug-in and hydrogen-fuelled cars); but also in encouraging no-carbon forms of transportation such as bicycling and walking through the creation of thousands of kilometres of bike and pedestrian paths crisscrossing the continent.
Europe’s automobiles have engines that are about half the size of America’s, requiring 30 percent less fuel to travel one mile than a gas guzzling American vehicle. The fuel standard of European vehicles is set to rise to fifty miles per gallon by 2012, but the Obama administration’s new nationwide standards mandate an average of only 35.5 mpg by 2016. Even China has reached that by now.
And comparing Europe’s trains with those in the US is like comparing a professional major league team with one in the minors. Europe has built an impressive network of routes for high-speed trains that crisscross the continent, with even more in the works funded by $27.5 billion earmarked by the EU. But the US really has no high-speed train lines to speak of, and Obama has allocated only $8 billion for construction. That’s too bad because trains emit only a third of the carbon per passenger compared to air travel.
For all these reasons, while the United States has seen a 21 percent increase in oil consumption since 1980, most European countries have seen significant drops. Denmark and Sweden’s oil consumption declined by a third, Germany’s by 20 percent, France’s by 14 percent, and Italy’s by 13 percent. If the United States were to match the fuel economy achievements of Europe, US demand for oil would be cut by 1.5 billion barrels of oil per year, nearly 20 percent of consumption, a huge amount given that the US consumes about a quarter of the world’s total.
Europe’s New Energy (R)evolution
Perhaps no single horizon better illustrates Europe’s technological advances and capacity for innovation, combined with political will and future-thinking, than its leadership in pushing the world toward a new era of renewable energy, conservation, and low greenhouse gas economies. Certainly, Europe has its energy challenges, many of them stemming from the instability of Middle East oil, Russian sabre-rattling over natural gas, and the lack of a continent-wide energy grid. But for the most part Europeans have discovered what a previous generation of American leaders once knew: investment in infrastructure pays dividends in multiple ways that pave the way for the future.
Every day that the massive black plume off the Louisiana coast sprays into the sea is a reminder of how much the United States has failed to transition to a modern energy regime. Given the stakes over global warming, Europe has emerged as ‘the indispensable nation’, while the United States, the largest per capita polluter in the world, continues to fiddle as the earth burns.