TIME energy

Germans Happily Pay More for Renewable Energy. But Would Others?

Germany solar power
Germany has become a world leader in solar power Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Germany has embraced subsidies for renewable energy, but not every country is willing to bear the economic burden

This article originally appeared on OilPrice

While Germany is breaking world records for the amount of sustainable energy it uses every year, German energy customers are breaking European records for the amount they pay in monthly bills. Surprisingly, they don’t seem to mind.

In the first half of 2014, Germany drew 28 percent of its power generation from renewable energy sources. Wind and solar capacity were hugely boosted, now combining to generate 45 terawatt hours (TWh), or 17 percent of national demand, with another 11 percent coming from biomass and hydropower plants.

This proves that Germany’s controversial Energiewendepolicy is on target to meet highly ambitious goals by 2050 — as much as a 95 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, 60 percent of power generation from renewables, and a 50 percent increase in energy efficiency over 2010.

All well and good, but the economics of renewable energy don’t usually allow for such a smooth transition. As part of the Energiewende, the costs of associated subsidies have been passed on to German customers, who pay the highest power bills in Europe.

Fifty-two percent of the power bill for retail businesses in July 2014 is now made up of taxes and fees. The average bill for a household has reached 85 euros a month, 18 euros of which is the renewable energy levy. The reaction to such fees should have been furious.

It hasn’t been. A 2013 survey revealed that 84 percent of Germans would be happy to pay even more if the country could find a way to go 100 percent renewable.

So how can this model of high targets, high fees and high public support find traction in other countries? The answer is, with difficulty.

Germany’s national engagement toward renewable energy came after a period of prolonged public education, opening up to locally owned wind and solar infrastructure, and investment support. To be sure, other major countries are finding success in the renewable sphere, but not in quite the same way.

While renewable installations in the U.S. may account for 24 percent of the world’s total, they only accounted for 13 percent of the country’s power generation. This compares to Germany, which has more than 12 percent of global installed renewable capacity, but takes 28 percent of its power from it. Spain, China and Brazil trail behind, with 7.8 percent, 7.5 percent and 5 percent of global capacity respectively.

Brazil’s model has similarities to Germany’s, with the government carrying out public auctions for contracts and putting out favorable investment terms for foreign companies looking to set up renewable energy projects. Spain was doing well as wind became its largest source of power generation in April 2013, but economic woes have seen Madrid begin to double back on its commitments.

Political gridlock in Washington, D.C. means renewable energy in the U.S. has been boosted by state and private efforts. Arizona now has the biggest solar power plant in the world, while California has the largest geothermal plant in the country.

In Mexico, the country’s solar potential and the improving cost-effectiveness of PV technology has seen projects like the 30MW Aura Solar I crop up. But the national electricity regulator, CFE, has been slammed for taking up to six months to connect residential PV installations to the grid.

Perhaps the most ambitious plans come from China, which is busy working to transform its reputation from an energy pariah to a respected renewable leader. However, these are being mandated at a central level, with little to no attention being paid to the opinions of the Chinese public.

And there’s the rub. The German public is a willing participant in the government’s efforts, happy to face higher bills in exchange for a cleaner and more energy-efficient future, paying an average of 90 euros a month in 2013. It is true that Germans’ power bills are the highest in Europe, but the trade-off is known, increases are announced and negotiated months in advance, and surprises are few.

In the UK, which was proud of having among the lowest electricity rates in the EU, the government has been hard-pressed to explain to customers just why Scottish Power, Southern Electric, and British Gas have all raised prices, while the Labour Party has promised a 20-month price freeze if it wins 2015 elections.

The UK has left its coal and nuclear infrastructure to stagnate, reversed Blair-era commitments to renewable sources and opened vast swathes of the country to fracking exploration.

Ask them, and Germans might tell you that a pricey electricity bill might actually save everyone from a few headaches down the line.

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TIME Environment

The World Needs More Clean Coal, or We’re Screwed

Coal plants in China
Coal plants like this one in China produce 40% of the world's electricity STR/AFP/Getty Images

Environmentalists have celebrated the rapid growth of renewable power. But a new International Energy Agency report makes clear that coal is still a major, and growing source of electricity. Unless we spend more time developing carbon-free coal technologies, there's little hope of holding back global temperature increases

The growth of renewable energy has gotten a lot of attention recently — and with good reason.

Buoyed by falling costs, wind and solar PV electricity generation has experienced double-digit growth globally in recent years. In the U.S. alone, demand for solar power increased by 41% in 2013. Altogether there are more than 440,000 operating solar electric systems in the U.S., a number that is growing every day thanks to the work of innovative new retailers like Solarcity. The Department of Energy just gave the go-ahead to three pioneering offshore wind developments along the U.S. East Coast.

All that good news makes it easy assume the world will soon be mostly powered by renewable sources. But as a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) makes clear, the numbers simply don’t back those dreams up. The global increase in coal-fired power generation has been bigger than that of all non-fossil fuel sources combined. And that’s not a recent change — coal has been outpacing non-fossil sources for 20 years, and coal now supplies about 40% of the world’s electricity needs. Six out of ten coal plants built over the past decade use the least efficient combustion technology, which means they emit even more pollution and carbon emissions then they should.

Even as the threat of climate change grows, the world is still using more and more of the dirtiest energy source out there; the World Resources Institute estimates that there are almost 1,200 big new coal plants in 59 countries proposed for construction. Developed countries like the U.S. should be able to reduce coal use rapidly, but most of the growth in electricity demand in the decades to come will be in developing nations—and coal will almost certainly be a big part of it. “Some people don’t want to talk about coal, but it’s the elephant in the room,” says Maria van der Hoeven, the executive director of the IEA. “It is there and it will be there for decades to come.”

Given that reality, you’d think the world would be working hard to make “clean coal” a commercial reality. That would be achieved by carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, in which carbon emissions from fossil fuel sources are captured and then buried in the ground, making coal essentially carbon-free. But CCS has been stalled by technological challenges and high costs. Even though the G8 in 2008 backed an IEA recommendation to launch 20 large-scale CCS demonstration projects by 2010, a recent Wired cover story on the subject reported that the number of such projects around the world is actually falling, except in China.

That has to change. As the IEA makes clear, growth in electricity demand is outpacing all other uses of energy, as developing nations begin to achieve electrical parity with the developed world. Efficiency will help significantly, but given that there are still 1.2 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity, we’re going to need more power. Renewable energy will keep growing as it gets cheaper and cheaper, while smarter grids will allow utilities to manage intermittent sources and reduce waste. The grid of tomorrow won’t look at all like the grid of today — except that it will almost certainly still include coal.

The IEA reports that if the world wants to hold global temperature increase to 3.6 F (2.0 C), the CO2 emissions per unit of electricity must decrease by 90% by 2050. It won’t be cheap; the agency estimates the transition will cost $44 trillion, though that could potentially be largely offset through fuel saving from efficiency. Either way, we almost certainly won’t get there unless we can make coal a carbon-free source of electricity, too.

TIME Environment

Obama’s Energy Announcements Are Nice, But We’ll Need Much More

Obama touts solar power
Solar power in the U.S. has grown nearly elevenfold under President Obama's watch Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The President visits a California Walmart to tout new policies on energy efficiency and solar

The warnings in the National Climate Assessment released earlier this week could not have been louder, predicting intensifying heat, torrential downpours and rising seas. And when President Obama spoke about the report, he was clear as well. “This is not some distant problem of the future,” Obama told The Today Show’s Al Roker on May 7. “This is a problem that is affecting Americans right now.”

But if climate change is the problem, what’s the solution? Today Obama began to answer that question, announcing several executive actions on renewable energy and energy efficiency at a speech he’ll give later today at a Walmart in Mountain View, California. Those actions include a plan to drive $2 billion in energy efficiency upgrades to Federal buildings over the next three years, using long-term energy savings to pay for up-front costs. The Department of Energy will issue two final energy efficiency conservation standards for industrial products like escalators and walk-in supermarket freezers, as well as tougher new building efficiency standards. Altogether the White House expects that the actions will push private companies to invest an additional $2 billion in energy efficiency, and will cut carbon pollution by more than 380 million metric tons—equivalent to taking 80 million cars off the road for a year.

That’s nice—and the President will also announce plans by a number of housing developments to increase their use of solar power—but it’s important to remember that the U.S. alone emits more than 6.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases. These new executive actions are small bore compared to the sheer size of the climate challenge—although they are taking place against the backdrop of rapid growth in the U.S. solar industry, which has increased nearly elevenfold since Obama took office. The selection of a Walmart for today’s announcement—while controversial with labor activists—isn’t accidental. Walmart already gets about a quarter of its electricity from solar, far more than the country as a whole, and the company has been a leader in energy efficiency for some time. Walmart might not be a political ally to President Obama most of the time, but the retail giant is light-years ahead of most of corporate America when it comes to climate change.

But energy efficiency and solar power are comparatively easy climate policies. The real challenge will come when the Environmental Protection Agency issues regulations on the amount of carbon that can be emitted by existing power plants, the single biggest source of greenhouse gases—and the single biggest action Obama can take to answer the climate challenge. Today’s announcement in Mountain View is just a warm-up. The marathon is still ahead.

TIME Technologizer

A Rare Look Inside an Apple Data Center

Yet more proof that Apple is not quite as secretive as it once was, when it thinks openness is in its own interest: The company showed off one of its data centers, in Sparks, Nevada, to Wired’s Stephen Levy for a good piece on its renewable-energy efforts. They’re led by Lisa Jackson, a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ninety-four percent of the power at Apple’s corporate campus and server farms is now renewable, provided by sources such as solar, wind and hydroelectric energy. One hundred percent of the power at Apple’s own data centers — it also uses co-location facilities owned by others — is renewable.

Both Google and Facebook are also aiming for 100% renewable data centers, but have a long way left to go. However, since Apple, unlike those companies, is primarily a producer of physical objects, being environmentally correct involves a different set of challenges and a lot more than data:

Aluminum is huge for Apple—it’s the main material in laptops, phones and iPads. Thus the impact of mining and processing that metal makes up for a substantial part of Apple’s carbon footprint. That’s why Jackson took notice last year when an engineer told her that he felt something wasn’t right with the way Apple measured that impact. Later, a second engineer reported similar suspicions. In her telling, Jackson could have dismissed this disquiet by noting that Apple was simply conforming to the standard methods of measuring the damage in a given process. But she encouraged efforts at Apple to revisit those standards. Indeed, Apple’s reexamination discovered that using the conventional yardstick, it was dramatically underestimating the emissions its aluminum use was dumping into the atmosphere—by a factor of four. Apple had to adjust its figures to reflect this. As a result, the company did not fulfill its expectation that its carbon footprint would be ten percent smaller in 2013 than previous years—it was nine percent larger. Apple would have to work harder to make its goals.

Levy’s story is full of intriguing nuggets, but one item a lot of people are probably wondering about goes unmentioned. He says that the only thing about his data-center visit Apple told him he couldn’t share with the world was the name of the manufacturer of the servers that power it. All he can disclose is that “they are not Mac Mini’s or anything else that you’d buy in an Apple store.”

TIME Renewable energy

Solar Plane Will Circumnavigate Earth in 2015

The unveiled Solar Impulse II aircraft is seen at their base in Payerne
The unveiled Solar Impulse II aircraft is seen at their base in Payerne April 9, 2014. Denis Balibouse—Reuters

The co-founders behind the newly unveiled Solar Impulse 2 say the jet will be able to circle the planet in a three-month trip planned for next year using only solar power, but now they just need to "develop a sustainable pilot"

A new airplane was unveiled in Switzerland on Wednesday that its builder hopes will fly all the way around the earth using only solar power in 2015.

The Solar Impulse 2 has a 236-foot wingspan—longer than a Boeing 747—covered in 17,248 solar cells that power four electric motors, which in turn drive the plane’s propellers.

Weighing in at 5,000 pounds, the Solar Impulse will ferry just one pilot at a time and not much else at a top speed of 87 mph. To cross the vast Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the plane will have to stay airborne for at least five days at a time, gaining altitude during the day when the sun is out and slowly descending about 5,000 feet in the evening when it’s dark.

The plane will be piloted in shifts by the two founders of the Solar Impulse project, Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg. Though the plane, they say, could theoretically fly indefinitely, the pilots cannot.

“So we have a sustainable airplane in terms of energy,” Borschberg told the Associated Press. “We need to develop a sustainable pilot now.”

The flight will take place in 20 airborne days over the course of three months in 2015. It will be grounded on the remaining days to allow the two pilots to switch off. The plane will be tested in May and June this year.

[AP]

TIME Environment

Renewable Energy Investment Is Down—and That’s OK

Solar and wind in Germany
Investment in renewables like solar and wind is down, but their share of global power is up Sean Gallup—Getty Images

Funding for solar, wind and other forms of clean power fell 14% in 2013, largely because it's now cheaper to adapt to the newer technologies, but that doesn't mean the shift to renewable energy has fully stopped

On the surface, the new numbers on the global renewable energy industry in 2013 do not look good for the planet. Investment in renewable energy fell 14% in 2013 to $214.4 billion, according to a new report from the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate and Sustainable Energy Finance, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance. And that comes after a year when renewable energy investment was already falling—it’s now down 23% from the record investment levels seen in 2011. Given that recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underscore the desperate need to increase the shift from fossil fuel to low-carbon power sources like solar or nuclear, the two-year investment decline is not good news.

But looking at the numbers more closely tells a brighter story. It’s true that investment in renewable energy has been falling, but that’s chiefly due to the rapidly falling cost of solar photovoltaic systems, according to Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The average price of installing a solar panel has dropped by 60% in the U.S., which means that less money can buy more solar power. Globally, renewable energy aside from large hydro plants accounted for 43.6% of all new power capacity added last year—the same as in 2012—which translated to 81 gigawatts. That raised renewable energy’s share of total power generation from 7.8% to 8.5%.

On top of that, more clean energy companies can draw funding from public equity—a stock market index of clean tech companies was up 54% in 2013. And the biggest drop was in a form of energy—biofuels—that’s looking less green every year. Even with investment down, the shift towards a world powered by low-carbon sources hasn’t stopped. “The onward march of this sector is inevitable,” said Liebreich at a press conference Monday morning.

The biggest change on the global stage was in Europe, where investment was down 44% from the year before (U.S. investment fell by 10%). Some of that drop is due to the delayed effects of Europe’s economic slowdown, which led countries like Spain and Bulgaria to make retroactive cuts to subsidies for existing renewable energy projects, which killed off investment altogether. Renewable energy remains heavily subsidized in most of the world, which makes it extremely vulnerable to policy uncertainty. “For the last few years there has been enormous policy uncertainty, even in the heart of Europe,” says Leibreich. “We’re at a point where there will be a lot of regulatory cleanup.”

There are even some caveats to the caveats. Those 81 GW of wind, solar and other renewables added to the global grid last year is in terms of power capacity, not actual generation. Because wind and solar are intermittent—they generate power when the wind blows and the sun shines—they actually generate far less energy in practice than their listed capacity. In the U.S., the capacity factor for renewables—excluding hydro—was 33.9%, compared to 63.8% for coal and 90.3% for nuclear. Until we figure out how to balance out the renewable sources—either through cheap energy storage or through more advanced power grids—clean energy will often need to be supported by dirtier power sources.

Still, renewable energy is poised to become an ever bigger part of the global energy picture—though perhaps not as fast we need if we’re to stave off the worst effects of climate change. We’ll need not just more investment in new wind and solar plants, but also in the sort of research that will yield breakthrough technologies that can change the rules of the energy industry (More nuclear, by far the biggest source of near zero-carbon power in the U.S., would help as well). This is a power shift that is just beginning.

TIME Solar Power

A Bright Year for Solar in the U.S.—But There Are Clouds on the Horizon

The solar industry is growing in the U.S., but a trade war could change that Don Emmert—AFP/Getty Images

Energy harvested from the Sun was the second-biggest source of new electricity generation capacity in 2013, but there are clouds on the horizon as a trade war between the U.S. and China stands to throw a monkey wrench in the works

You don’t get any brighter than the reflecting mirrors at the just-opened Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, in California‘s Mojave desert. When I visited the project back in May, I was warned not to look directly at the mirrors, lest my eyeballs end up as scorched as some of the birds that have flown through the 1,000° F-plus (538° C) heat generated by the solar towers. The picture is almost as bright for solar as a whole in the U.S. According to statistics released today by the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, demand for solar increased by 41% in 2013, with 4.75 gigawatts of photovoltaic panels installed last year. (1 GW is about enough energy to power 750,000 homes.) That made solar the second-biggest source of new generation power in the U.S. after natural gas, which is still benefiting from the shale revolution. By the end of 2013, there were more than 440,000 operating solar electric systems in the U.S., with more than 12 GW of photovoltaic (PV) and nearly 1 GW of concentrated solar power.

While big utility scale plants like Ivanpah, which harnesses the heat of the sun with concentrated solar mirrors, got most of the headlines, it was small-scale residential systems that drove much of the demand last year. Residential projects increased by 60% over 2012 as the price of installing solar fell and as customers took advantage of leasing options—offered by companies like Solarcity, which I wrote about last year—that allowed them to purchase panels with little money up front. The growth was rolling throughout 2013, with residential installations increasing 33% in the last quarter of 2013, and should continue this year. That financing market is growing: Mosaic, an Oakland-based startup launched by the climate activist Billy Parish, just began offering a home solar loan that allows consumers the chance to borrow the cost of a solar system over 20 years. “2013 offered the U.S. solar market the first real glimpse of its path toward mainstream status,” said Shayle Kann, vice president of GTM Research, which follows the clean tech market.

(MORE: The Power—and Beauty—of Solar Energy)

Bright times for solar, indeed—and that’s just in the U.S. Last year China installed at least 12 gigawatts of solar capacity, at least 50% more than any other country had ever built in a single year. But that’s where things get cloudy. The U.S. solar boom has been fueled in part by cheap solar panels from China, which have helped bring down the cost of solar power—now 15% cheaper than it was in 2012. But those same cheap Chinese panels have hurt domestic manufacturers of solar PV, even as they’ve helped installers like Solarcity. Several domestic solar manufacturers—led by SolarWorld, an American arm of a German company—have complained that the Chinese government is unfairly subsidizing national solar PV manufacturers, which allows them to undercut their American competitors.

In response, the U.S. government agreed in 2012 to impose tariffs of 24 to 36% on Chinese PV panels. But that made little difference—Chinese companies just outsourced much of their production to Taiwan. This year, however, SolarWorld brought a new suit in response, pushing the U.S. to extend those tariffs to Chinese panels made in Taiwan. Last month, the U.S. International Trade Commission said it would move forward with an investigation, and is set to issue a preliminary ruling by the end of March. If those tariffs are indeed extended, you can expect solar power in the U.S. to get more expensive, slowing down growth and hitting installers—who employ far more Americans than U.S. solar manufacturers do—very hard, especially since China has already said it would impose retaliatory tariffs. More expensive panels would likely depress demand for solar in the U.S., hurting installers.

There’s some truth to the argument that China may be intentionally driving down the price of solar panels to allow its companies to dominate the industry. But if so, the strategy hasn’t been that effective—a number of Chinese manufacturers have gone bankrupt, including Suntech, which was until recently the world’s biggest panel maker by volume. The U.S. solar industry is at a tipping point, poised to grow its way out of niche status and potentially change the way Americans think—and more importantly, pay for—energy. It’d be a shame if a 21st century industry gets tripped up by 19th century trade politics.

(MORE: Solar Powered Plane Soars Across the U.S.)

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