After a monster tornado wiped out Greensburg, Kansas in 2007, killing 11 people, the community decided to rebuild with meaning. It set out to become one of the world's greenest communities.
Today the town is among a growing number of jurisdictions that generates all of its electricity from renewable energy.
An aeriel view of Greensburg before (left) and after the tornado (right). Credit: City of Greensburg.
Greensburg achieved a goal that many see as pie-in-the-sky. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore several years ago drew jeers from his political critics when he proposed that the U.S. go all green within a decade. The jury remains out about the plausibility of a U.S.-size economy functioning with all renewables anytime soon. But Greensburg, with a population of less than 1,000 people, has demonstrated that it can work on a small scale. Others have done the same, among them Güssing, Austria; King Island, Australia; and Naturstrom, Germany.
It's not just cities with the ambition. Eight nations are 100 percent renewable or moving in that direction: Denmark, Iceland, Scotland, Costa Rica, Maldive Islands, Cook Islands, Tuvalu, and Tokelau. Add 42 cities, 49 regions, 8 utilities and 21 organizations, and going 'all green' looks like a bona fide trend.
Times have changed since the mid-2000s when a group that included the late Hermann Scheer, TIME magazine's 'Hero for the Green Century', first explored the idea. The group formed the Renewables 100 Policy Institute, but in the early years found that the concept was too "bleeding edge" for established non-profits, which declined to sign on.
"Now that is starting to change," said Diane Moss, the institute's founding director. The Renewables 100 Policy Institute held its first international conference in April, drawing a crowd of more than 200 people. The presenters were not from the fringe of the green world, but were representatives of established advocacy organizations, elected officials, corporate executives and the head of the California Independent System Operator Corp.
"If we want to fill our goal on a global scale it is important that regions like California, like Germany or other regions unify together in a movement to 100 renewable," said Harry Lehmann, Director of the German Federal Environment Agency at the conference. "We have to share our experience."
Today, the Renewables 100 Policy Institute is actively supporting the trend and reports on global progress via the Go 100 percent Renewable Energy project it created. An interactive map on the site tracks those pursuing and achieving the all-renewables goal. (The site is the source of the numbers above on how many jurisdictions the movement encompasses.)
No doubt, it is easier for certain regions over others to generate all of their electricity from green energy. Early achievers often have the advantage of significant natural renewable resources.
Iceland, which produces all stationery energy from renewables, relies on its vast hydropower and geothermal resources. Costa Rica already has achieved 95 percent to 98 percent renewables, mostly from indigenous hydro. Similarly, New Zealand, which is moving toward a 90 percent goal, gets 75 percent of its power from renewables, mostly hydro and geothermal, and is now working on developing its wind power.
Scotland also relies on its strong winds and hydro, which produce the bulk of its 5.8 GW of renewable energy installed capacity. The country hopes to reach the 100 percent target by 2020. A Scottish parliament report found that to stay on track Scotland had to be generating about 31 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2011. It beat the target with 35 percent in 2011 and about 39 percent in 2012, according to Scottish Renewables, an industry organization.
While Scotland is ahead of its goal, it's not necessarily clear sailing from here.
"There are three major challenges that we face in realizing our ambitious targets; access to finance, strengthening our grid infrastructure and ensuring we have a good planning system in place," said Rachelle Money, director of communications for Scottish Renewables.
Then there are those places with unusual circumstances that make renewables almost the only real choice. Rural villagers in Bangladesh have achieved all renewable electricity. But they have no connection to a power grid, leaving distributed solar energy as a logical choice and their sole source of power.
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