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Europe surpasses the U.S. in renewable energy use.

Altech, Voralsburg Austria

Well, it's research time again, and the Solar Cowboy is on the road to see just how far Europe is ahead of the U.S. in the deployment of renewable energy and other means of sustainability. We've long known that our friends in western Europe have been persuing a new energy paradigm with more gusto than we do at home, so a first-hand visit was in order.

Just taking a train through the countryside (in this case from Muchen, Germany to Bregenz, Austria) we saw that about 5% of the homes have solar thermal arrays making them hot water. Another 5% of the larger farm buildings are sporting healthy photovoltaic arrays (2-5 Kw). We also observed that several hill tops had large-scale wind turbines (500 Kw and larger) in groups of from one to 12 machines. Most of the PV arrays and several of the wind turbines were not yet installed when we rode the same train in 2001. Obviously something has promoted these technologies in a way that we have not come close to.

Of course our national energy policy is written behind closed doors by our Vice President and several other old energy (nuclear, oil, coal and gas) CEOs. Our policy is classified to the degree that even our senators and congress people are denied access to the details. Their current version of the Energy Budget subsidizes both the well established and profitable industries (oil, coal and gas), as well as the dangerous and disasterously expensive nuclear industry. Many of us are strongly encouraging our senators and representatives to create a better plan for converting to clean and renewable energy sources that have, in the last few decades, cleary shown their superiority. We are, of course, optimists!

It turns out that the province that we are visiting in Austria--Voralberg--has more solar thermal and PV applications than much of the rest of the country. While driving up into the Austrian Alps we observed about 15% of the houses had solar domestic hot water systems. The largest PV arrays were on farm buildings (3-8 Kw arrays!). The government subsidizes the production created by these clean electric generators for the first 30 years of their operation. This is a very sensible way to support the use of PV. Providing incentives based on the actual production of the system insures that installations work and encourage maintaining the system for highest production.

We also found a bio-mass plant making energy from waste wood from the local wood mills. In Hittisau, the small plant generated heat and electricity for local use from local waste. It was a very good use of resources and it was small, appropriate to the scale of the village and the resources.

Austria has a steadily growing renewable energy industry and some very progressive politics supporting development.


When last I wrote I was moving from Austria, where the government assists with the cost of photovoltaic systems, onto Switzerland. As I noted, Austria was showing quite a bit of PV usage through out the countryside and especially on large farm buildings.

In Switzerland, where federal government assistance ended about five years ago, there were fewer installed PV systems than in neighboring Austria. Local Canton governments had varied support for PV installations, from nothing to small subsidies based on system production, and use of the technology was not significant. One local supplier, in Liestal, indicated that most of his work was on grid intertied systems. He was expanding his company's headquarters and seemed to be doing a good business with about five employees. Clearly the support of the government in Austria had led to more PV on the ground in that country.

As we proceeded on to France, the appearance of wind turbines and solar systems, both thermal and electric, tapered off to virtually nothing. France is one of the largest users of nuclear power (80% of their supply). It appears that they are not interested in renewable energy or sustainable design. There is one major PV manufacturer in France (Photowatt) and some amateur installations are visible in the countryside, but by and large, France appears to be lagging behind other European nations in the development of renewable energy.

When we took the train to the Netherlands, we saw a huge shift in development by crossing borders. The Dutch are installing wind turbines in a dedicated and serious manner. While use of photovoltaics is small, the use of big wind machines is large--and on the rise. The Dutch have a strong environmental awareness and are making their concerns visible by making wind generated electricity a reality. Our hosts in Middleburg were avid bicyclers and they took us on several bike tours of the area. On each occasion we were able to see the use of wind power somewhere along the trip.

While doing these research trips can take it out of you, we find everywhere you go there are wonderful people working to bring clean energy to our world.

The hospitality of each country we visited was notable and reassuring. People everywhere want a clean energy future and by pulling together we are going to make it!
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Title Annotation:The Solar Cowboy
Author:LaForge, Chris
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:May 1, 2004
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