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Report Card on Renewables: Europe's Getting A's

Oct. 14, 2010 - Jeffrey Kluger

There are some new numbers worth pondering as the east coast sizzles through day three of a heat wave and the Time offices operate at brown-out  levels so that the air conditioning doesn't crash the building-wide power grid. Whether or not the current scorcher has anything to do with climate change, there's no doubt that we're in for a lot more such summers as atmospheric carbon levels rise and the planet steadily warms. And there's no doubt that the best way out of that mess is to switch from an oil-based grid to a renewables-based one—and pronto. That's why Europe—Olde Europe, fusty Europe, the continent that couldn't shoot straight—has reason to be proud.

According to a new report from the European Commission's Joint Research Center (JRC), fully 62% of new electrical capacity installed in the European Union in 2009 came from renewables—meaning that nearly 20% of all electricity consumed by the continent is now clean and green. Of the 62% that was newly installed, 37.1% was wind power, 21% was photovoltaics, 2.1% was biomass, 1.4% was hydropower, and .4% was concentrated solar power—solar electricity produced not from  panels, but from collected sunlight that boils a fluid which in turn drives a zero-emissions turbine.

Of the 38% of new power that was not renewable, most (24%) was natural gas, and 8.7% was familiar, dirty coal. Nuclear power, which has historically played such a big role in the continent's power grid, was just 1.6%.

Europe's success is no accident, but rather comes from long range planning. Policymakers had set themselves a goal of producing 40 gigawatts (GW) of wind power per year by 2010, for example, and with that serving as a goad, actually exceeded the target by nearly 100%, with a current output of 74 GW. The new goal is 230 GW (or 20% of the continent's total energy needs) by 2020.

As for the U.S.? Renewables currently provide just 10.1% of our total electricity generation, or about half of the level Europe has achieved. And with the climate and energy bill now languishing in the place all good ideas go to die—the U.S. Senate—the prospects for  improving  those numbers in the near future look dim. Meantime, the 4 PM temperature in New York City is 102 degrees and the lights are still on—for now.