In 1979, US President Jimmy Carter took a bold and unexpected step to promote renewable energy – he had 32 solar thermal panels installed on the roof of the White House. At this time it was a pioneering move; solar panels were not nearly as popular or well-known as they are now.
At the dedication Carter made a strong and impassioned case for change, saying “a generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people: harnessing the power of the sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil”. The United States, it seemed, was on the brink of a solar power revolution.
Just seven years later in 1986, Carter’s successor Ronald Reagan had the panels removed – allegedly according a member of his team, Reagan thought that the panels were ‘just a joke’. Reagan’s administration then effectively mothballed renewables. It’s clear then, that the leadership of any country can play a huge role in the way that renewable energy is perceived.
Things have moved on since 1986. It is thirty years later and you’re much more likely to hear politicians talking the same sort of game as the progressive Carter than rehashing the antiquated opinions of Reagan; you would be hard-pressed to find a world leader that doesn’t acknowledge the importance of renewables. But talk – as they say – is cheap, unfortunately however, investment in renewable energy really isn’t. So which countries are the ones who are taking it seriously and which are just blowing hot air?
How does Britain fair?
The UK government would love to suggest that they are leading the way on clean energy but in reality that isn’t quite true. Of course the country has its fair share of good news in terms of renewables: more than a million homes across the UK now have solar panels, solar power outperformed coal for the first time in history in April and the ‘Green surge’ has seen thousands of people join the Green Party, which has consistently argued for a far more clean energy-friendly stance. Equally, in the 2015 climate changes talks in Paris, the British government reaffirmed its commitment to reducing dependence on fossil fuels to counteract the effect of climate change.
Unfortunately, the figures simply don’t match up to the words. The current Conservative government has actually cut clean energy subsidies and this is despite the fact that a recent report released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change stated that support for solar power has reached a record high of 84% in Britain. It could be argued that the government is having something of a Ronald Reagan moment.
The EU’s renewable targets, which the UK has signed up for, state that 15% of overall energy should come from renewable sources by 2020. The country does currently look on course to achieve this. And that might seem like a cause for celebration – but when you compare the UK to other developed European countries, it’s clear that we are lagging behind in a big way.
Germany has been far more impressive. In 2014, renewable energy accounted for more than 30% of Germany’s production and the country is on course to achieve 45% by 2025. This has been achieved mostly through an impressive dedication to solar power – it leads the world in solar PV capacity with more than 38.2 gigawatts at the end of 2014. That’s more than US, the UK, France and Spain combined! Jimmy Carter must be envious.
There are other success stories across Europe as well, with many of them spurred on by the aforementioned EU renewable targets for 2020. Portugal recently made the news for managing to do something truly impressive: for four days straight, the country’s energy consumption was taken entirely from renewable energy. Perhaps what’s most remarkable about that is the fact that as recently as 2013, Portugal was getting more than half of its energy from fossil fuels. That’s a clear indicator that a country’s dependence on fossil fuels can be significantly reduced very quickly if the will is there.
The rest of the world
Scandinavia’s doing well. Denmark set a world record for wind production in 2014 and managed to get 40% of the country’s electricity purely from wind energy. And Sweden has even given itself the goal of being one the first countries in the world to be powered entirely by renewables. However, it looks set to lose out to South and Central American rivals, Uruguay and Costa Rica, which in 2015 managed to generate 95% and 99% respectively from clean energy sources.
One reason for their success undoubtedly comes from their more plentiful supply of sunshine than their European counterparts. But there are challenges facing even the most sun drenched nations. In May 2016, Australian Greens energy spokesperson Adam Bandt called on the government to invest in AUD2.9bn on renewable energy storage units. The party has previously suggested that Australia should be aiming at using 90% renewable energy by 2030. This seems ambitious considering that in 2014 that figure was hovering just below 13.5%.
The US still remains a bit of a mixed bag. The Carter and Reagan example illustrates that the changeable nature of priorities between administrations can make a huge difference in attitudes. Things have certainly recovered. Statistics showed that across 2014 a solar energy system was installed somewhere in the US every 2 minutes and 30 seconds. But there’s no guarantee that future governments will see the importance of renewables and promote them in the same way. With demand for energy continuing to grow – especially across the developing world – we need to continue to strive to fund alternatives to fossil fuels.
Written by Mike James, an independent content writer working together with Sussex, (UK)-based boiler system, central heating and renewable energy specialist BSW Energy, who were consulted over the information contained in this post.