New Internationalist

Renew yourself

Issue 382

Despite over half a century of nuking the planet, it’s not too late to detox. Here are a few tonics that inspire.

Britain: Micro is beautiful
Microrenewables – renewable energy technology suitable for home use – are demonstrating enormous potential for individuals literally to take power into their own hands. The New Economics Foundation reports that if a third of electricity customers installed just 2 kilowatts of microrenewables (either wind or solar), it would match the capacity of the British nuclear programme.1 Furthermore, community-owned and managed renewable energy initiatives are on the rise, with Scotland taking the lead.

‘And Lord, we are especially thankful for nuclear power, the cleanest, safest energy source there is. Except for solar, which is just a pipe dream.’

Homer Simpson, from the popular tongue-in-cheek, animated television programme The Simpsons.

Japan: Leading light
Japan – with the third most nuclear reactors of any nation – has been plagued by a series of mishaps at its nuclear stations that have led to plant closures, cost overruns, radiological release and the deaths of workers at facilities. The resultant public disaffection with the technology has led to a massive push by the Government in the area of solar power. By the early 1990s, the Japanese Government began offering subsidies for installing solar panels on households. As a result, ‘rooftop power’ is now cheaper than electricity from the nuclear-fed grid. Solar is doing so well in the country that subsidies are being phased out and still capacity is expected to grow by 20 per cent a year without any extra support. Japan produces more solar power than any other nation on earth.2

Germany: Atom Energie? Nein Danke!
Germany was the one of the first leading economic powers officially to announce its intention to phase out the use of nuclear energy. Political will has also helped propel Germany to be one of the leading inspirations for renewable energy policy. A 1991 law forced utilities to buy any renewable power that anyone generated, and at a generous price. Since then, the country’s solar capacity has been expanding by nearly 50 per cent a year. It already produces more energy from the sun than any country except Japan. An estimated 10,000 people are employed in the sector.3 The vast majority of Germans also support building more wind turbines and expanding renewable energy in the power mix. According to one survey, 70 per cent of Germans favour the construction of additional turbines. With regards to nuclear, 59 per cent of Germans characterize nuclear power and radioactive waste as ‘dangerous’. The Government predicts that by 2020, wind energy will cover 20 per cent of German power use and will be cheaper than power produced from conventional energy sources.4

US: You’d be surprised
A 1990 study by five national laboratories surmised that increasing research and development budgets by just the cost of building one nuclear power plant ($3 billion spread over 20 years) could enable renewable energy to provide a half to two-thirds of the total energy then used in the United States by 2030.5 Despite being the world’s climate pariah, 70 per cent of voters favour policies that would require utilities to generate at least 20 per cent of their electricity from renewable resources.6 Experts predict photovoltaic generation will grow by nearly 20 per cent a year for the next two decades.7

China: Winds of change
By 2020, China expects to supply 10 per cent of its massive electricity needs from renewable energy sources, particularly wind power. It has provided tax incentives for wind technology manufacturers and site developers, standardized electricity rates such that wind compares favourably to coal, and has imposed equipment requirements that help local manufacturers. In February, the Government passed a renewable energy law that institutionalizes many of these measures and sets targets. China’s provinces will also be required to buy electricity from alternative providers, even when the cost is substantially higher.8 Currently China has an installed wind capacity of approximately 253 million kilowatts, ranking it first in the world.9

If current growth rates for solar and wind persist they could provide 45 per cent of global electricity needs by 2020.10

  1. Mirage and Oasis: Energy choices in an age of global warming, New Economics Foundation, June 2005.
  2. State of the World Report 2004, WorldWatch Institute, 2005.
  3. ‘One Roof at a Time’, Bill McKibben, Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 2004.
  4. ‘Poll Finds Strong Support for Wind Energy in Germany’, Renewable Energy Today, 5 October 2004.
  5. Scenarios of US Carbon Reductions: Potential Impacts of Energy Technologies by 2010 and Beyond, US Department of Energy, 1990.
  6. Poll:Voters Supporting Increased Generation of Renewable Electricity, Mellman Associates, 2002.
  7. Renewables to the Rescue/The Nuclear Write-off, Rocky Mountain Institute, 2005.
  8. ‘In Search of a New Energy Source, China Rides the Wind’, Howard W French, New York Times/IHT, 26 July 2005
  9. ‘China to Speed up Development of Wind Power Industry’, Beijing Times, 9 May 2005.
  10. ‘Charting a New Energy Future’, Janet L Sawin, State of the World 2003, Worldwatch Institute 2004.

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