Why The EU Is Kicking Our Clean Energy Ass

The EU signed Kyoto in 1997, and passed laws to lower emissions by 2005. Five years later it had double the wind power of the US, and ten times the solar power.

I know that it has been customary to compare the metrics on renewable energy development within the US as a whole to just one nation within the European Union, but it is misleading, as a comparison of our relative progress, because the US has a bigger economy than any one EU nation such as Germany or Spain, that it is typically compared to. It is time for us to compare the US with the EU as a whole to get an accurate picture, because it is easier for a larger economy to beat a smaller one in anything.

image via Shutterstock

This applies in any metric, but especially when comparing things like numbers of wind farms or solar farms, because how many people there are in a given area, and how much electricity they need (to produce and consume what percent of the global GDP) needs to be comparable, or the comparison is nonsensical.

For a real comparison, the US with its fractious collection of very different red states and blue states held together in something of a union is much more comparable in these ways to the similarly varied states of the EU as a whole, rather than to any one of the nations within it.

A comparison of the size of the two economies, the population and geographic size suggests that we should be comparing US progress as a whole, not to a single country within the union, but to the whole European Union.

Our total economies are similar in size. According to the IMF, the EU’s economy is $16 trillion and the US’ $14 trillion. The EU and the US combined represent about half the global economy. Each puts out between 20% and 25% of the global GDP.

Our geographic spread is similar. The European Union is about 3.8 million square miles, and the US is a similar 3.6 million square miles.

And our numbers are comparable. Although the EU now includes new members Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Monaco, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland, the EU 15 (that signed Kyoto, and implemented the renewable legislation) or the core of the EU, (Germany, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain) is 384 million people, and the US population is 313 million.

These three similarities mean that comparing progress between the two unions – one of states, and one of nations – makes a lot more sense in comparing the US progress on solar, for example, than comparing it with that of one EU nation. There are only 46 million people in Spain, which has a GDP of $1 trillion, so its economy is hardly comparable with the entire $14 trillion US economy.

How does US progress look when compared to the entire EU? Not good.

The EU as a whole is far further along the clean economy road than the US, since signing Kyoto in 1997, and implementing feed in tariffs and cap and trade by 2005 to lower emissions. Five years later it had double the wind power of the US, and ten times the solar power.

The EU has 84 GW of wind power capacity installed as of 2010, according to the AWEA. The US has about half that, at 43 GW.

EU solar power capacity totaled 29 GW through 2010; ten times the cumulative grid-connected PV in the US of 3 GW as of 2010, according to a GTW report quoted at Earthtechling, or to be precise only 2.6 GW confirmed by SEIA figures – which includes all types of solar, not just PV, and counts residential, commercial, industrial and utility-scale installations.

While the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) made a huge investment in utility-scale solar that is now beginning to break through the lengthy review process – so that there is at least 17 GW in the pipeline now as of mid-2011 – even this ‘Manhattan Project’ jump in the level of investment will only bring the US up to two thirds of what the EU had installed as of 2010.

This one-time heroic lift for renewables and climate action was accomplished in the rare few months of 2009 (before Kennedy died) when the US had functional Democratic majorities big enough to overcome Republican obstruction. It is sad that voters in the US are not aware that that represents what could be accomplished again, and added to, if they could get those majorities in the House and Senate once more.

But US voters are increasingly so dismayed and baffled by what the media tells them is simply “congress” that now only 48% of US voters even bother to vote, far below the rates of the 1960s and 1970s, when the US passed the Clean Air Act. By contrast, most EU countries have over 80% voting participation, and their EU-wide energy legislation is much more 99%-friendly as a result. But just how far ahead they are was a shock to me in researching this.

Comparing wind and solar capacity as of the end of 2010, the EU had between twice and ten times the US amount. That is pretty sobering.

Susan Kraemer enjoys writing to publicize the many great solutions for climate change that we can find if we just put our minds to it. She covers renewable policy and clean energy for CleanTechnica and GreenProphet and green building at HomeDesignFind. She recently moved home to Waiheke Island where her writing is now powered by the 80% renewable electricity that powers New Zealand.

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  • Sebastian Paluch

    I never knew Switzerland was in EU :), also where did you get 80% voting participation in most of EU countries? – guess real figures are much closer to these of US.

    • Claude Marsh

      Probably right I think the only EU country with over 90% is probably Malta (which btw was left out of both lists above) probably mistaken for switzerland

      • http://muckrack.com/dotcommodity Susan Kraemer

        Yes, I know from previous reading that Malta IS part of the EU Kyoto group, and like one of our 5 or 6 coal states (>80% coal powered) it is almost completely fossil-fueled, not one of the EU’s success stories. It is interesting that Europe has the same wide range in climate consciousness among its member nations as we do in states. Their Germany or Sweden or Denmark like our California at about 20% renewable, but their Malta to our Kentucky.

    • http://muckrack.com/dotcommodity Susan Kraemer

      Actually, I was surprised to find that Switzerland was originally not! It only joined more recently. I got the participation rates from wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voter_turnout

  • Jdelduco

    Kicking our ass and utterly bankrupt. Another victory like that and Europe is done for.

    • Bgi_phatk

      You do know that the US actually have a higher % of external debt than then EU. US=99% of GDP, 47.6K per capita vs EU=85% of GDP, 27.9K per capita. Also the EU has $1,4 trillion in foreign currency reserves versus $143 billion for the US. The crisis in Europe is more political than economic…but I guess printing money can save the US…for now