Increasingly countries and regions are leapfrogging timid renewable targets and moving toward full 100 percent integration of renewables into electricity supply. Some thought leaders, politicians, and advocates are moving even further, suggesting 150 percent, even 300 percent renewable electricity generation to meet not only electricity supply but also heat and transport.
How times have changed.
When I began my career three decades ago, our demands were modest if not meek. We could hardly imagine wind supplying more than 10 percent of electricity consumption. Then the California wind rush arrived in the early 1980s, and we realized that wind energy had indeed come of age as a commercial generating technology.
Our expectations increased accordingly. Wind penetration of 20 percent then began to seem a reasonable objective. But we stumbled badly here in the US. We turned our backs on renewables during the Reagan era.
Meanwhile, Danes continued to erect ever more wind turbines throughout the 1990s. Soon Denmark was closing on 20 percent of supply from wind energy alone and it became apparent — again — that our targets were too modest.
Even then I remember writing that we advocates were not suggesting that renewables would completely replace fossil fuels. No we said, we’d always need fossil fuels for some portion of supply. Wind — and solar too — would just be parts of the resource mix, maybe a big part, but still just a part.
“Facts on the ground,” as they say, were changing faster than our thinking of what was possible. With experience in Denmark, followed by that in Spain and Germany came the realization that renewables were capable of growing much faster than we had ever anticipated. Reality was overtaking our imaginations.
Today wind turbines generate nearly 30 percent of Danish electricity. But of course that’s not all. The Danes didn’t stop with just wind. They’ve also been building hundreds of biogas digesters and waste-to-energy plants as well. Together, wind and biomass provide 44% of the electricity consumed by Denmark’s nearly six million inhabitants. And on 20 March, just after midnight, Denmark’s wind turbines alone were generating more than 100 percent of the Scandinavian country’s consumption.
The list of what was once unimaginable continues to grow. Portugal’s 10 million people produced more than half their electricity in 2010 from their own indigenous renewable resources. Spain’s 40 million people meet one-third of their electrical consumption from renewables.
All of this was accomplished with policies implemented before the climate crisis was fully felt, and well before Fukushima.
In retrospect, none of this should have been surprising. After all, in the early days of electricity much of it — if not all in some regions — was generated renewably with hydroelectricity.
What was different from then was the growing role of the “new” renewable technologies, such as wind, solar, biogas, and geothermal. Also new was the observation that if we are to address climate change we have to do something about fossil fuels in transportation and heating. This was brought home to me this past summer as I sat on a panel at the World Wind Energy Association conference in Bonn titled “100% Renewable Energy”.
On the panel were two long-time renewable pioneers, Preben Maegaard from Denmark, and Johannes Lackmann from Germany. Independent of each other, both had come to the same conclusion. To address climate change and energy security, we must move well beyond 100 percent renewable energy in electricity supply and build an integrated network capable of using more than 150% renewable energy, up to as much as 300 percent renewable energy to offset fossil fuels in transportation, and heating.
This is the kind of bold, visionary thinking that is being debated in Europe. As more countries and regions adopt what was once unthinkable — 100 percent renewable targets in electricity supply — academics and thought leaders are asking questions about what it will take to go even further.
Meanwhile, the list of countries, states, and regions with 100 percent renewable targets continues to grow.
The most famous example of an ambitious target is Denmark. In the spring of last year the Danish energy minister and then holder of the EU Presidency, Martin Lindegaard issued the country’s 100 percent Renewable Energy Declaration.
Denmark proposes to meet more than 50 percent of its electricity supply with renewables by 2020, 100 percent of electricity and heat by 2035, and 100 percent in transport by 2050. "I think it’s doable, I think it’s necessary, and it’s also good for the economy," said Lidegaard in the declaration.
Just south of the Danish border, the German state of Schleswig-Holstein has also set itself an ambitious target of 100 percent of interior electricity consumption by 2020.
The German states of Rheinland-Pfalz and Brandenburg have set their targets of 100% renewable for somewhat later, 2030. Brandenburg expects to meet its target in part by decreasing electricity consumption 1% per year and setting aside 2% of the state’s land area for wind energy.
The 2% rule for wind is quickly becoming the norm in Germany. This past winter, Schleswig-Holstein, which currently meets more than half its internal consumption with wind, announced that it was doubling the land area devoted to wind energy to nearly 2 percent to meet their renewable targets. Similarly, the German Wind Turbine Owners Association (Bundesverband WindEnergie) commissioned a study finding that Germany could meet its 2050 target for wind with 2% of the country’s land area.
The central German state of Hesse is less ambitious than its peers. Their target is 100 percent renewable by the more distant date of 2050.
For several years now, Germany itself has the objective of generating 80 percent of its electricity from Renewables by 2050. The debate has now shifted to how much sooner can they reach that target and at what will be the cost in doing so.
Germany is the hotbed of 100 percent Renewable discussion. This fall, the city of Kassell will host The 5th 100 percent Renewable Energy Regions Congress. Organizers note that more than 130 regions and municipalities have set themselves the target of providing 100% of their energy supply with renewable energy in the medium to long term.”
In fact it is small villages and towns that are driving the move toward 100 percent renewable energy policy in Germany just as they did with the introduction of feed-in tariffs in the 1990s. Because renewable energy is dispersed—distributed the experts say — even the smallest and most remote village can opt for locally-owned resources that offset not only their own consumption, but often much more.
Disclosure: I receive a grant from the World Future Council. The World Future Council is a co-sponsor of the conference Pathways To 100% Renewable Energy and I am a speaker at the conference.
Dardesheim bills itself as Germany’s renewable energy village, Jünde advertises as “the” bio-energy dorf, and the district of Rhein-Hunsrück along the scenic Rhine Gorge touts its target of 500 percent renewable energy by 2020.
In a dream come true for renewable energy advocates, German villages compete with each other for the title of who produces more renewable energy per capita. Winners are even feted with an annual award.
Talk is now shifting to European-wide targets for 2030 and beyond. All members of the European Union have binding — not “aspirational”–2020 renewable targets. Advocates are now suggesting that Europe itself could move toward 100% renewable energy by 2050.
The Austrian state of Upper Austria has set a target of 100 percent renewables in heat and electricity by 2030.
And of course Scotland has thumbed its collective nose at Donald Trump and set itself the very ambitious target of 100 percent renewables in electricity supply by 2020 mostly from wind energy.
And probably the most ambitious target of all is that proposed by Stanford academic Mark Jacobson in the US, and NGOs in Europe. Jacobson, the World Wildlife Fund, and others have shown that the world could produce 100 percent of its energy needs by 2050 with renewable energy.
Closer to home, dissatisfaction with the typically timid targets found in state Renewable Portfolio Standards has led new players in the renewable arena to challenge the traditional incremental approach of established NGOs. They argue that the times demand more aggressive action — targets that are ambitious enough to elicit the dreams and hopes of Americans — and the policies to match them.
Some communities, such as Greensburg, Kansas are taking action into their own hands. After a tornado leveled the city in 2007, the community decided to do things differently when they rebuilt. One of their objectives was to rebuild with 100 percent renewable energy.
Fortunately, Greensburg is not alone. Other cities across the country are taking up the cause. It is this ambition that has driven the first conference of its kind in the US, a conference on how to move American’s toward 100 percent renewable energy. Like the past four such conferences held in Germany, the conference features thought leaders, politicians, and academics at the forefront of this global new movement.
Pathways To 100 percent Renewable Energy will focus on 100 percent renewable energy targets and how to get there. Scheduled for 16 April 2013 at the Fort Mason Conference Center in San Francisco, the conference brings the discussion of the future of renewable energy full circle. California was the crucible where the modern renewable energy industry and its potential was forged. The state has long since given up its role as a leader in the renewable energy revolution, but the budding movement toward 100 percent renewable energy could re-awaken the Golden State’s pioneering spirit.
Lead image: Renewable city via Shutterstock