You might never guess that Jimmy Carter was the first U.S. president to actively support renewable energy by putting solar panels on the roof of the White House. Today the U.S. gets only 6% of its power from renewables. Elsewhere in the world, it’s an entirely different story.
Take Germany, for instance, which in 2000 was already at 6%. That year, it passed the Renewable Energy Act and embarked on its Energiewende (energy movement). At the end of 2012 it generated more than 25% of its energy from renewables—solar, wind, and biomass. It has also succeeded in passing all its benchmarks on the drive to boost that total to 80% by 2050. It’s doing so well, in fact, that it’s upped its 2020 benchmark from 30% to 35% and intends to shut down all nuclear power generation by 2022—a decision made in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
Germany has pursued solar with a zeal found in few other locales, boasing a third of the installed solar capacity in the world.
Utility companies are not the drivers of renewables in Germany. Individuals are, owning 65% of the country’s renewable energy capacity. Utilities, on the other hand, account for only 6.5% of the renewables sector, continuing to focus on fossil fuels.
But renewable energy subsidies are on the chopping block as German officials seek to limit rising energy bills—which help pay for those subsidies—and that looks likely to limit the rate of growth. In addition, a slower economy has already taken a toll on energy consumption.
That reduction in demand has in a way made renewables in Germany victims of their own success. A recent Fitch Ratings report said as much: “Fundamental changes are taking place in German power generation stemming from the implementation of the government’s new energy policy, the Energiewende, utilities’ decisions on capex and asset decommissioning …” However, structural change in the energy market “is also driven by subdued growth in the wider economy and overcapacity that is likely to persist in the coming years on the back of growth in renewables and thermal capacity,” according to the report.
Spain, too, has set a record for energy generation from wind power, according to the blog of the Spanish Wind Energy Association. It now gets about 25% of its energy needs from wind, and from the beginning of November wind was its largest single source of electricity. It also gets about 5% of its electricity from solar.