Thinking Tech

Q&A: Europe's world-class innovation in sustainability (and why the U.S. is falling behind)

Q&A: Europe's world-class innovation in sustainability (and why the U.S. is falling behind)

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SmartPlanet speaks with award-winning author Chris Turner about his observations of European environmental innovation and why the U.S. ought to catch up.

Kentish flats wind power farm, in sunset.

Chris Turner is an award-winning author who covers sustainability with a focused angle on practical economics and environmental innovation. For his latest book The Leap he traveled the globe investigating innovative projects and describes how Europe and Asia are inventing and implementing industries of the future. And he notes they are already lapping the U.S. in laying the groundwork for such industries.

SmartPlanet caught up with Turner in British Columbia where he is on a book tour. We asked him about breakthrough projects that really stood out as exemplary samples of innovation in sustainability. And we asked why the U.S. is falling so far behind. Get ready for the tough answers.

Turner’s book is available in Canada and will be set for its U.S. release in fall 2012.

SmartPlanet: You’ve traveled through Europe investigating some really innovative energy projects. What projects really stood out for you?

Chris Turner:  So there are two things that are impressive in Northern Europe. One involves the scaling up of renewable energy from the lab level to mainstream industry. And then the other is more on the implementation side.

Take Germany for example, what’s really impressive is just the scale. It’s a major industrial nation, the world’s leading export nation, and they’re moving really rapidly towards renewable energy as one of the primary sources of fuel for their grid. Everything from interesting things on the solar side to these extraordinarily rapidly expanding port operations in cities like Bremerhaven where they’re building components for offshore wind.

SP: What specifically are they doing in Bremerhaven?

CT: I was in Bremerhaven last year and saw the first serial production facility for offshore wind turbine bases, which are massive hunks of steel. They looked like Eiffel Towers on a Henry Ford production line just being turned out to rapidly expand the offshore wind installation capacity of Germany’s North Sea coast. So what really strikes you on one level is just the sort of scaling that is happening right now in places like Germany.

SP: You also mentioned interesting work on the implementation side?

CT: On the smart grid front the most advanced experiments are being done right now on an island [in the Baltic Sea] called Bornholm in Denmark.

Bornholm is basically a partnership between the Danish technical university, and the Danish government, Siemens, and a couple other corporate partners. Siemens is the leading partner. And they are building a scale model of a smart grid where you have electric vehicles being fueled by wind power that are then reconnecting to the grid. The eventual plan is to be able to sell back some of the power that they store overnight  to the grid at higher prices during the day. Siemens is using Denmark as its test lab for what it believes to be an enormous sector of its enterprise, which is the smart grid.

SP: The intention is to bring it to other countries obviously.

CT:  Oh definitely. There are people playing with smart grid stuff all across Europe. There’s a couple of projects that have been put in place in the U.S. And you have smart metering and smart grid technologies being installed in British Columbia and western Canada. But probably the most thorough kind of engineering is what Siemens is doing in Denmark.

SP: So what makes it so thorough?

CT:  Basically the Danish government got involved in this because they are looking to go to fifty percent plus wind power by 2025, for the national grid. So when wind becomes your primary energy source on your grid you start getting into load balancing issues. They needed to crack the storage problem and they’ve decided to do it with electric vehicles. Everyone from the Rocky Mountain Institute to my local utility in Calgary have talked about this potential feature where your vehicle would fuel up on the cheap overnight and then sell back during the day. But the only place that I know of where they are actually building out that model is the Siemens project in Denmark.

SP: Presumably the car needs some of that fuel that it fueled up on overnight, so what are they selling back to the grid during the day exactly?

CT: The way it might work is you’d park your car during the day at work and you know that you only need 40 percent of the battery life to get home. So you’d open up the other 60 percent that you stored overnight.

The other part of this of course is time-of-day metering. In most places the wind power peaks at night. Yet the demand is lowest at night, so the cost of power at that time of night is actually pretty cheap. So you fuel at the cheaper prices. Then middle of the day when power demand is high you could basically have a sort of trigger built into your connection that says, when power prices go over “x” amount per kilowatt hour start feeding back and sell down until your power’s half gone.

SP: Getting back to Germany, can you give us an idea of the numbers of wind turbine bases you saw being turned out on a factory line?

CT:  They’re building them now, I think that the two assembly line facility that I saw can do something like 100 wind turbine bases a year. One hundred wind turbines tend to be five megawatts each. So just that one facility would be building enough bases for five hundred megawatts of power, which is equivalent in size to a nuclear power plant. The German target is now ten gigawatts of offshore wind in the North Sea in the next ten years. The number would roughly be equivalent to twenty nuclear plants.

SP: What is holding back other countries from reaching this sort of scale, or to put it another way, what’s specific to Germany that’s allowing them to do this?

CT:  Germany was the leader in solar technology and they’ve been overtaken, just in terms of sheer manufacturing by China. So China is definitely a big player there. But in both cases the mechanism is the feed-in tariff, which is this very innovative piece of legislation, which is basically rather than trying to penalize greenhouse gas emission it basically builds incentives into green energy in a sense offsetting the pollution they don’t make. If you build a wind farm or put solar panels on your home you get a huge incentive at a cost level. It’s not a direct subsidy out of the federal government’s purse, the actual power when you sell it back to the grid you sell it at higher than market rates. Of course once you have the incentive to install the stuff there’s now incentive to make it too. So that’s what’s happening in Germany. In China it’s direct subsidy, massive amounts of government money. Solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, all that is being heavily subsidized in China so that they can corner the market.

In fact, I think the U.S. Department of Commerce just actually put a tariff on imported Chinese solar panels. It is a penalty tariff for violation of trade regulations because China is selling solar panels at less than production cost.

SP: Why is the U.S. and maybe even Canada falling short of Germany?

CT:  Actually Canada’s catching up. The Canadian energy policy is almost exclusively at the provincial level. So the Ontarian government actually passed a direct copy of the German legislation and very quickly they became the single most robust market in North America for renewable energy technology. Certainly the States have done some pretty good stuff. California obviously has got some pretty good legislation in place. New Jersey had a really ambitious solar program. There’s a lot of wind in Texas. There was a lot of wind in Iowa until the federal tax rebate expired. The big problem in the U.S. is that there’s not consistent support for it. There’s been some piecemeal stuff. There’s been some direct investment through the stimulus program. There are tax rebates, Obama tax rebates, but there’s a lot of incoherence. And the big thing about what the German feed-in tariff legislation does is it’s a guarantee of the market. So you know, I put solar panels on my roof, they sell at let’s say three times the market rate. And that rate is guaranteed for twenty years.

That means that the producers can build manufacturing facilities and other infrastructure because you’ve got a twenty-year market whereas in the U.S. it tends to not be consistent.

SP: What happens?

CT: The example I know best is what happened in Iowa. Iowa was actually the fastest growing wind market in the world in 2009. There were all these companies setting out. Obama did a big Earth Day photo-op speech where he talked a really great game about the future belongs to clean energy. And right up to the 2010 congressional elections the new tax rebate that was making it all profitable just vanished and never got renewed. The industry ground to a halt in months.

SP: Because we look to Germany as an example, since it may have influenced Canada, do you see any promise in the future in the US?

CT:  Yes, there continue to be some good things happening. California still has really good renewable portfolio standard levels. At the moment though and increasingly, really just in the last few weeks, the Federal Government and Obama have been talking about this stuff more for the first time in a long time. But again, in the absence of any actual kind of sustained effort it doesn’t matter that you say you want it. I haven’t seen much to suggest that there’s anything really ambitious in the near future.

You see less and less venture capital and entrepreneurial money put toward the whole clean tech field in the U.S. My sense, every time I’ve gone back to Europe in the last few years is that at this point they’re just lapping us in the race.

SP: What is ultimately stopping Americans from getting onboard?

CT:  You’ve got the political right continues to deny the fact of climate change. And then in concert with that is the fact that conventional energy companies in Canada and the U.S. have lobbied and funded the hell out of both governments in both Canada and the U.S. to perpetuate the status quo.
In Canada it tends to be oil and gas in Alberta specifically, whereas in the U.S. it’s a mix of oil companies, and coal, and a whole bunch of other conventional energy industries, all of which are not excited about the process of decentralized renewable energy.

That is the biggest difference between us and Europe. There’s a domestic coal industry in Germany, but it doesn’t hold as much sway as it does in the U.S. A lot of Northern European countries, with the exception of Norway, are not oil and gas producers so they don’t have that vested interest.

SP: I can see this latter part completely, the fact that the oil, gas and coal companies are still making a lot of money so they don’t want to stop. But presumably climate change denial has got to be waning?

CT:  Not much. For example take Florida or Georgia, both of which would be obvious places to do a lot of solar. I think both currently have zero support in renewable energy there’s no interest in a greenhouse gas plan at all. And that’s not atypical. There’s lots of state level leadership that is either hostile or indifferent. And then at the federal level it appears that if you want to be a serious republican presidential candidate you have to pretend you don’t believe in this stuff. Romney had to back off of his own stated public position in order to cater to the base.

SP: With regard to renewable energy though and climate change, even if we were to turn everything around today, climate change is on a path of no return. So I assumed that the major push for renewable energy has got to be primarily because we need other sources of energy apart from oil and coal, period.

CT:  Well it’s both. Are we in a position now where we’re already seeing permanent climate change? Yes. But 2 degrees Celsius is considered one of the big threshold markers in temperature increase. Keeping it under 2 degrees would be staving off the worst. Once you get past that to 3, 4, 5 or 6 degrees warming, which some of our current emissions trajectories point to, you’re getting into not just maybe a little bit of flooding in coastal areas, some weird weather, but rather really large scale catastrophic change. Germany is doing what it’s doing for a handful of reasons. One because it’s creating jobs and new opportunities in a growing field, and that’s good  because it’s reducing their dependency on foreign energy. And it’s helping them meet their greenhouse gas emission prevention targets. There’s a commitment in pretty much all of Europe now to significantly reduce greenhouse gases. There’s no debate left about that commitment, even at the political level.

SP: So in North America what needs to happen?

CT:  I think a big part of it is going to be the opportunity for industrial renewal. Ontario is only in its third year since passing its green energy act, which is its version of the German feed-in tariff. It’s already seen impressive success. That will attract the interest of the American Midwest where they’ll be sort of looking across the border at Southern Ontario. There’s the declining auto industry and old manufacturing has gone away. The hope is that people start to see this as a huge opportunity.

And it undoubtedly is. It’s been a huge revenue generator for a number of European governments. The Chinese are not in it for altruistic reasons, they’re in it because it’s a booming industry that they can own a big chunk of. To bring it full circle from where we started talking, the reason Siemens is pioneering this smart grid thing as an opportunity to enter the auto industry. And I think inevitably it will start to shift for the U.S. too. It’s still the world’s largest economy and has an incredibly voracious appetite for energy. So the market is there, it’s a matter of both how soon and then how fast the American industry and government from the state and federal level embrace this stuff and really start pushing it.

SP: What will define when it will happen?

CT:  There’s already movement in all of this already. It’s just that the political environment since 2010 has been so unstable. Think about the governor of Wisconsin giving back federal money that was given to them to begin building high speed rail networks, which is just colossally stupid and it’s pure ideology trumping all sense of logic and reason. “We’re happy with our crumbling rust belt, thanks.” So in that political environment obviously you’re not going to see the kind of robust growth that you’re seeing in that industry elsewhere. But I think the corner will be turned somehow in the next few years, but no one seems exactly sure how. It’s not wholly dependent on federal politics, but certainly federal politics has a role to play. And right now federal politics is about as deranged as it’s ever been.

[Photo via Vattenfall]

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure