Countries with 100% renewable energy

Cahora Basso, Mozambique

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.

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22 Comments on “Countries with 100% renewable energy”

  1. Stefan Thiesen July 9, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

    Jeremy: Everyone in the sector who is worth his money will know that the trick is done by the correct mix – we do need big solutions, but we equally need small scale solutions. Local use, intelligent grid load management (smart grids), demand side management (i.e. energy saving), short term storage technology, controlled deliberate over capacities, new storage technologies on every level from small household and local level batteries (i.e. a NiFe battery revival) to mega-projects like the Norwegian pump storage plants. Small scale direct use systems are rather unpleasant for the big utilities, ebcause often they produce most when most is needed – especially in the case of Photovoltaic here in Germany, where people have their main meal for lunch and hence there is a power spike a noon. Elsewhere similar spiked stem from Aircons. Hot summer day = loads of PV electricity supply and Aircon demand. There is, unfortunately, no similar correlation for Wind.

    Anyway – there is a difference between “renewable” and “environmentally benign”. We obviously all know the impact of mega-dam projects. And Geothermal energy technically also is not renewable, plus it involves dealing with huge quantities of pretty nasty fluids. There is no free lunch, I am afraid.

    The table you linked to is pretty outdated, which shows the dynamics of the field. For example, nuclear in Germany is down to zero now. By the end of 2011 24.6 % of electricity production were from renewables here, but only just over 12% of the total energy consumption (including traffic, heating etc.). This means that in Germany, which likes to be considered a world leader in renewable energy, almost 90% of all consumed energy still comes from burning something that was dug or pumped from the ground. A long, long way to go! Last year I had read an article stating that the increased power consumption of the Internet alone in Germany offset the increased production from Photovoltaic. And increase in air traffic alone offset all efforts of building insulation. So here is the usual growth dilemma: energy consumption is directly coupled to growth. The lunch is not only not free – it even eats itself.

  2. Byron Smith July 10, 2012 at 1:54 am #

    “World leader” might conceivably be read as “highest percentage of domestic energy production” (as in this post) or “highest total kWh from renewables”. The latter would, I suspect, shift back to some of the usual suspects (as well as China and the US too, of course).

    • Stefan Thiesen July 10, 2012 at 8:06 am #

      What I wanted to express above is that even those industrialized countries that do embrace renewable energy still are a long, long, long way from a renewable energy based economy. Technologically it is possible, but it is an enormous effort that probably takes two generations to achieve. It will take enormous political will. Against nuclear lobbies. Against fossil fuel lobbies. I.e., quite literally, against some of the most influential economic powerhouses on earth.

  3. Jeremy July 10, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    Yes, there’s no free lunch, and it will be decades before we have an energy system that is anywhere near sustainable in most developed countries.

    The rankings come out rather different you look at capacity rather than percentages, and of course depending on what you define and renewable energy. What prompted the post was something I heard on the radio, where someone said something to the effect of ‘there are no countries in the world running on 100% renewable energy, and that would impossible’. I’ve heard that or read that a number of times now.

    Where I grew up in Madagascar, the capital city relied entirely on hydropower, from a power station where a river was piped down a mountainside and through turbines along the way. Then when I went to school in Kenya, the area we were in was a volcanic region of the rift valley and power came from geothermal. So perhaps I’m more aware of these technologies than most.

    Stefan, can you say more about which forms of geothermal aren’t renewable? I’ve usually found it classified as such.

    • Stefan Thiesen July 10, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

      Jeremy: strictly speaking geothermal is not renewable, but in total draws from such a huge reservoir of energy that it can be treated as such for the time being. Certainly that’s the case in areas like Hawaii, Iceland or the Rift Valley you mentioned. However, in areas with less pronounced geological activity and much smaller temperature differences between reservoir and working (heat exchange) medium, you have to drill deep to get to reservoirs – often mineral laden water reservoirs. And those, over time, do get depleted. So globally speaking geothermal can be considered “sustainable”, but not exactly renewable. See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geothermal_energy#Sustainability. Even a source in Taupo/New Zealand is being depleted. In any case geothermal is of course an infinitely more benign technology than coal or nuclear power.

      Something else on the side: did you know that passive houses were already in use in Iceland in medieval times? Demand side management really is what can get us half way to a sustainable energy future. But it is at odds with economic growth: If we’d suddenly use only half of the energy as before, it would result in a severe dent in the GDP. Not using something, not wasting something, would mean crisis in this our rather peculiar type of economy. It also suggests a fundamental difference between national economics and household economics: When I personally save money by wasting less, my wealth increases. National wealth seems to decrease in the same situation. Peculiar, too: debt increases the GDP. That alone renders it rather questionable as an indicator for the well being of a population.

      • Byron Smith July 11, 2012 at 12:27 am #

        In one sense, solar energy (and wind, as a form of second order solar) is not renewable either, but draws from such a huge reservoir of (fusion) energy that it can be treated as such for the time being. ;-)

        But I do agree that in areas that are not hot spots, then there is evidence that geothermal either has to be very minimal, or will be depleted in decades/centuries.

        I also entirely agree that energy demand reduction (esp through changes in behaviour and aspiration rather than merely efficiency, which is constantly undermined by rebound) has to be at the heart of any sane policy, another critical pillar of which has to be a mechanism to keep the vast majority of fossil carbon underground.

        • Stefan Thiesen July 11, 2012 at 8:46 am #

          Well, Byron: we are talking about a difference of several orders of magnitude between the Energy reservoir of the sun and that of the Earth’s core. But the comparison nevertheless is a good one, since both share that we can – even theoretically, only access a minute fraction of these energies. And the benign nature of Geothermal may well change its face as soon as it massively expands and higher risks are taken. We are, after all, meddling with rather unstable geological fracture zones. There is quite some evidence, for example, that the Sidoarjo mud volcano is in fact a man made well blowout – in this case not from an oil well like Macondo, but a noxious water/mud one. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sidoarjo_mud_flow

          In any case – in my lifetime both, world energy demand and the world population, both would roughly double, if they keep increasing at current rates. World GDP would even increase three to fourfold. And if we project such tendencies to historical time spans, 100, 500, 1000 years, it quickly becomes extremely obvious that this form of growth simply cannot work. It will involve taking ever greater risks that also would more frequently lead to industrial accidents and disasters. I see the great cut-off that looms somewhere as a mathematical certainty. The question is not whether, but when. Chernobyl, Sidoarjo, Macondo, Fukushima are, in my view, preludes to what awaits us. I am afraid in this context I probably will be pretty much seen as an alarmist by some. The train is rushing into the darkness, with full throttle, despite our knowing that somewhere, in front of us, there is an end of the track. The only reasonable action is to slow down. Significantly. Which is not an option in an economic system that rests on exponential growth. On the contrary: this economy requires constant acceleration in order to remain stable. Insane.

          • Byron Smith July 11, 2012 at 3:29 pm #

            Yes, my comment about the sun was tongue in cheek. You are right about geothermal not being an endless or unproblematic source of energy. There are no free lunches.

            And I agree that endless growth is a dangerous myth that urgently needs replacing. Yet it is not industrial accidents that I most fear, but the successful operation of industrial economies. The worst industrial accidents have devastating local consequences. The best of our industrial operation has catastrophic global consequences. Macondo polluted hundreds of km of coast and killed an unknown quantity of sea life. Fukushima’s consequences remain to be seen. But both are a fraction of the threat represented by thousands of coal plants successfully combusting their fuel day after day for decades.

          • Stefan Thiesen July 11, 2012 at 4:58 pm #

            @Byron: you are certainly right, but those accidents, when their frequencies increase, add to the load that compromises the resilience and stability of human civilization and natural ecosystems. Several Fukushimas in a row would, for example, add a notable amount of radioactive decay products to the global food- and matter chain, concentrating up the trophic levels all the way to the bodies of top level predators, including us, via bio-magnification. Results could be diseases and a compromised food base. The main risk is, of course, growth itself. Industrial accidents are only a “side effect”, but one with potentially serious local – or even global – implications, directly (e.g. through the food chain) or indirectly (e.g. financial implications) when hitting already stressed economies, societies, resources and ecosystems. What I fear is something akin to a resonance effect where ultimately macro and meso trends and incidents amplify each other – something that regularly occurs in chaotic systems.

          • Byron Smith July 11, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

            Yes, fair enough. My point was that we need to look to these systemic threats, not simply to industrial disasters per se (as bad as they can be). But I suspect we are basically in agreement here.

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  7. Hannah September 26, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

    Could you link to the sources for the information you provide? Some of the figures have links, but Paraguay and Norway do not, for example. It would be much appreciated! Cheers :)

    • Jeremy September 26, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

      Sure, most of the stats are from the world electricity generation index, linked at the bottom of the post.

      • Hannah September 26, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

        Thanks!

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    2 canadians province (Prince Edouard Island and Quebec) has now 100% clean renewable energy and no nuclear energy.

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