Which countries have the highest percentage of renewable energy – care to guess? I suspect that names like Germany, Denmark or Spain might spring to mind. They’re certainly making good progress, but they’ve got nothing on the world’s renewable energy leaders. There are countries in the world powered entirely by renewable energy, and some that are even net exporters of green electricity.
These pioneers are overlooked for a variety of reasons. For one thing, they’re out of the way places. Agencies tracking the progress of renewable energy often focus on the OECD countries or the G20 and forget to look elsewhere (like this). Sometimes they have patchy data and are omitted from research.
Most often its a matter of categorisation – what is and what isn’t considered renewable energy. Hydroelectric and geothermal electricity generation are frequently listed separately from solar, wind and tidal energy, even though they are technically renewable too. There are various reasons for this. A large dam might be clean energy, but disastrous for the environment in other ways. If it runs off melting ice, a dam could be renewable but not actually sustainable in practice in the long term.
Others simply leave hydro and geothermal out because they’re older technologies, and including them in renewable energy statistics might make people complacent about their percentages. This categorisation issue is actually quite a problem. US States each decide independently whether they will count hydropower as renewable or not, which rather confuses national energy targets.
Still, taking that broader perspective, here are some forgotten pioneers of the renewable energy world:
- Iceland – Built as it is on a volcano, Iceland has tapped the earth’s natural warmth to supply 85% of the country’s housing with heat. Between geothermal and hydropower, the electricity supply is 100% renewable energy. Iceland has so much geothermal capacity that their ambassador to Britain is in discussions about whether or not they could build an interconnector into the UK grid.
- Lesotho – The small mountainous African country of Lesotho also has practically 100% renewable electricity, thanks to the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. The network of dams exports water into South Africa, providing almost all of Lesotho’s power along the way. The project has its controversies, including serious corruption.
- Albania – with large scale hydroelectric facilities, Albania used to be a net exporter of electricity. Unfortunately droughts have seriously reduced the capacity of its dams, and along with widespread corruption and the stealing of electricity, there are now power shortages. Nevertheless, the country runs on around 85% renewable electricity.
- Paraguay – Itaipu dam, one of the world’s largest, provides 90% of Paraguay’s electricity and 19% of Brazil’s. It cost $20 billion, took 30 years to build, and displaces 67.5 million tonnes of CO2 a year.
- Bhutan – Another small mountainous country that can boast electricity as one of its major exports, Bhutan wires 75% of its power to India.
- Mozambique – Mozambique’s energy infrastructure tells a sad story, with the ambitious Cahora Bassa dam completed just in time for the outbreak of civil war. Underused throughout the 80s, it came back online recently and now exports electricity into South Africa and Zimbabwe.
- Norway – Britain’s top three sources of electricity are gas, coal and nuclear. Norway’s are hydroelectric, geothermal and wind, but they’re an interesting case. Norway’s renewable energy sector has developed to serve the export market rather than domestic consumption. If you look at Norway’s generating capacity it would be around 98% renewable, but if you look at the country’s consumption, that falls to 24% because most of the clean energy Guarantees of Origin have been sold to neighbouring countries.
I could also mention Costa Rica, Laos, Colombia, Malawi, Nepal, Belize, and a dozen others. Many African countries, with small domestic consumption, have renewable energy percentages to shame the G20. I don’t mention these examples because I necessarily recommend their approach or endorse the projects concerned. Some of them are controversial, others have been badly managed or are rife with corruption. Besides, not everyone has a big river they can dam, or mountain regions that can support hydropower systems.
I mention them because I keep reading news articles mentioning the world leaders in renewable energy, and naming Germany, Denmark and Spain. And I keep hearing people dismissing ‘renewable energy’ as unworkable, and then only talking about onshore wind and solar PV. Truth is, these countries are simply the pioneers. If energy commentators like Chris Goodall have got it right, every country will be 100% solar in a few decades time.