Europe Energized

By Steven Hill, June 8, 2010, New York Times/International Herald Tribune

With toxic black ooze spreading throughout the Gulf of Mexico, it may be time for the Obama administration to think seriously about national energy policy. It could learn plenty by looking across the Atlantic.

The average European today emits half the carbon of an average American and uses far less electricity. It takes 40 percent more fuel for an American car to drive a mile than a European car. Europe overall has managed to reduce its ecological footprint to half that of the United States for the same standard of living.

How has Europe managed this? Through smart, strategic government policy, working closely with the private sector, to advance incentives and regulations that encourage the necessary behavior from consumers, households and businesses.

While the U.S. has resorted to ill-fated strategies to secure more oil — including recent calls for more offshore drilling — the European landscape has been slowly transformed. Picture windmills, tidal turbines and solar panels on rooftops dotting the European landscape, and vast solar arrays with tens of thousands of panels that have tracking technology to follow the sun.

Then add “smart” energy-efficient buildings that monitor the temperature and sunlight to open and close window panels and blinds automatically. Imagine harnessing the body warmth of 250,000 daily commuters to produce heat for a nearby office block, with high-speed trains circling it all, linking major cities, whisking passengers in carbon-friendly efficiency. All of these inventions and more are becoming reality in Europe.

Europe leads the world in the production of wind power — the U.S. has less than half of Europe’s wind capacity and China barely a third. Solar power has also surged, with photovoltaic capacity in the European Union growing at an annual rate of 70 percent.

Other energy forms are being developed, including geothermal, biomass and small-scale hydro. Captain Nemo’s dream of power from the sea has taken the form of large cylindrical “sea snakes” bobbing in the ocean, transforming wave motion into electric power, as well as underwater “seamills” — turbines churning in the currents, producing carbon-free power.

Renewable energy technologies have proliferated in Europe. Energy companies are required to pay producers of wind and solar power three times more per kilowatt than they pay for conventional power. That has created economies of scale allowing renewable technologies to expand.

Most European advances result from just better ways of boosting conservation. Since the mid-1990s, all new construction has had to meet requirements for energy efficiency, incorporating green principles into everything from building design to urban planning to low-flush toilets.

Buildings account for 50 to 70 percent of total energy use in today’s cities, so E.U. directives pushing widespread use of low wattage light bulbs, motion sensors that automatically turn off lights and reductions in “standby power” used by household appliances, have been important tools in the battle to reduce energy use.

Europe also has been pioneering what is known as “cogeneration,” which recaptures the vast amounts of wasted heat belched up a power plant’s smokestack. Millions of homes and buildings are warmed by recycled heat transported in insulated pipes from power plants. Recycled energy from cogeneration amounts to 40-50 percent of all energy used in Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland, and 20 percent in Germany and Poland — but only 8 percent in the United States.

The average American building uses roughly a third more energy than its German counterpart. Improving energy efficiency in buildings would translate to a whopping 25 percent reduction in America’s carbon emissions.

In the transportation sector, Europe is leading in the development of mass public transit, high-speed trains and fuel-efficient autos (including vehicles such as electric plug-ins and hydrogen-fueled cars). It also encourages bicycling and walking with thousands of kilometers of bike and pedestrian paths.

For all these reasons, while the U.S. has seen a 21 percent rise in oil consumption since 1980, most European countries have seen significant drops. Oil consumption in Denmark and Sweden declined by a third, in Germany by 20 percent, in France by 14 percent. If the United States matched Europe’s energy productivity, Americans’ demand for oil would be cut by nearly 20 percent — a huge amount given that the U.S. consumes about a quarter of the world’s total.

Europe has created hundreds of thousands of new “green jobs,” and green exports to global markets have increased, showing that sound environmental policy does not have to hurt the economy. Europe has set a course outlined by its ambitious 20-20-20 Plan, with its goals of reducing carbon emissions by 20 percent and increasing use of renewables to 20 percent of the overall energy mix by 2020 (the U.S. generates only 6 percent of electricity from renewables).

Certainly Europe has its energy challenges, many of them stemming from the instability of Middle Eastern and Russian energy sources. The current economic crisis adds an additional trial.

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