Today, we see several small-country initiatives on climate change that border on the truly enlightened. In Sweden, we see the results of the work that Volvo has made on perfecting the battery-powered municipal bus as part of their program to become fossil-fuel free by 2030. And while most small countries don't have the services of world-class transportation engineers like Sweden has with Volvo, this has not prevented a country like Uruguay from enacting a major renewable initiative.
In some ways, Uruguay's accomplishment may seem like little more than smart shopping. They have some prime wind sites and looking around, discovered that that Germans were already far advanced with windpower installations. Sign a few contracts and 10 years later, 94.5% of their electricity comes from wind. This may sound easy but so far, no one else seems to have pulled it off. It seems that this small country benefits greatly from an enlightened government. So in many ways, Uruguay's accomplishments may seem just a happy accident but it helps a lot that when the happy accident of a good government comes along, the small institutions they run are unusually flexible.
Sweden's silent buses making a loud noise03 Dec 2015
They're so quiet you could hear a pin drop and take just five minutes to recharge. The Local has been for a ride on the electric buses that have put Gothenburg on the map for tackling climate change and are soon set to drive into other European cities.
Some of the tech-savvy passengers are glued to their mobile phones, making the most of the free wifi and charging points, while others are watching an ice hockey game showing on the television screen on route 55.
There is minimal small talk on board this moving microcosm of Swedish stereotypes, just as in most major towns and cities. But here there are no noisy engines to mask the silence. The bus is run entirely on electricity. It's an experience so quiet that Volvo Group – the company behind the initiative – even managed to arrange surprise a capella performances from some of the Nordic country's top recording artists on services over the summer.
There are also no fumes wafting in through the doors when travellers hop on and off. The buses are entirely emissions free, pausing for just five minutes to charge their rooftop batteries in what Volvo Group describes as "the world's first indoor bus stop" at Gothenburg's Lindholmen Science Park.
"It's a cool way to help the environment (...) It's quiet and it's not as bumpy as the hybrid buses so it's great!" says Vilma Thoren, 17, a student in the city who is one of hundreds of regulars using the new form of transportation.
"I think it's good that Gothenburg gets involved with environmental questions and I think that these buses are one way to help develop a better future for our city."
These are not the first public electric buses on the planet, but since they got on the roads of Gothenburg in July they have grabbed plenty of global attention as part of the Fossil-Free Sweden initiative launched by the Social Democrat-Green coalition, designed to ensure the country becomes one of the world's first fossil fuel free nations by 2030. The government has asked Swedish companies, municipalities and cities to highlight their climate change efforts and to challenge those in other countries to do the same.
Volvo Group – along with the city of Gothenburg – has already been shouting especially loudly about its achievements, despite the fact that it continues to deliver more than 10,000 buses annually which still run purely on diesel or are hybrid vehicles.
However the company's Chief Sustainability Officer Niklas Gustafsson says the move is much more than a publicity stunt.
"We cannot afford to develop something that we only want to demonstrate (...) We are going only for electric and hybrid buses moving forward," he told The Local during a conference for foreign journalists in the city last month, fully funded by the bus manufacturer.
Gustafsson, who also represents Volvo as co-chairman on the United Nations high level advisory panel on sustainable transport, said he would not consider the project to be a success until it had been rolled out on every continent. But he admitted that Sweden – with its famously green reputation – had been the obvious location for the Swedish company to test the initiative.
"If we were only showing off with an electric bus we could do it anywhere. But since this is a transport solution, then we needed some help from our friends and it's a bit easier to find those friends in Sweden (...) the city officials, the utility companies, the experts."
Volvo has put 200 million kronor into the project, with Gothenburg City Council adding a further 19 million, alongside other major investments from the Swedish Energy Agency (Energimyndigheten), Chalmersfastigheter (a company working to manage and develop student housing) and Region Västra Götaland.
The company told The Local that the operating costs of the buses are far lower than those running on diesel, thanks to energy consumption that is 80 percent lower. But it said it was "hard to give an exact number" due to country variations in fuel prices.
An analysis conducted in collaboration between Volvo Group and the audit and advisory firm KPMG earlier this year estimated that a city with half a million inhabitants would save about 100 million kronor per year if all of its buses ran on electricity instead of diesel and lead to an annual reduction in carbon dioxide emissions totalling 33,000 tonnes.
Other major urban centres are clearly already buying into the idea. Volvo has just introduced eight more electric buses to its fleet in Stockholm (on the island of Lidingö and in several southern suburbs). The German city of Hamburg is also trialling two, while Luxembourg, Montreal and Bangalore among the other destinations scheduled to follow suit in 2016.
The vehicle firm is currently brainstorming ways to make the best use of space in places using the buses, such as enabling them to drive into and get charged up at shopping malls, schools and public squares.
"We bring the buses closer to passengers. They can go to places where people actually want to go and where noise pollution is no longer an issue because they are so quiet," says Jessica Sandström, head of Volvo Group’s city mobility programme.
"Why aren't they everywhere yet? That's what my kids ask me all the time!" she laughs.
Back on the streets of Gothenburg, while many acknowledge that the Swedish transport firm has clearly invested in some heavy-handed public relations tactics surrounding the vehicles, most locals appear genuinely pleased with the results.
"I support it and I actually think they should be talking even more about it," argues 24-year-old resident Denise Janlof.
"Sweden can be a role model for other countries, we are already looked up to. But I also think a lot of people hear about things like this and then think 'this is enough'. I believe we also have to show more of what is wrong and what we need to do even better." more
Uruguay makes dramatic shift to nearly 95% electricity from clean energyIn less than 10 years the country has slashed its carbon footprint and lowered electricity costs, without government subsidies. Delegates at the Paris summit can learn much from its success
Jonathan Watts in Montevideo, 4 December 2015
As the world gathers in Paris for the daunting task of switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy, one small country on the other side of the Atlantic is making that transition look childishly simple and affordable.
In less than 10 years, Uruguay has slashed its carbon footprint without government subsidies or higher consumer costs, according to the country’s head of climate change policy, Ramón Méndez.
In fact, he says that now that renewables provide 94.5% of the country’s electricity, prices are lower than in the past relative to inflation. There are also fewer power cuts because a diverse energy mix means greater resilience to droughts.
It was a very different story just 15 years ago. Back at the turn of the century oil accounted for 27% of Uruguay’s imports and a new pipeline was just about to begin supplying gas from Argentina.
Now the biggest item on import balance sheet is wind turbines, which fill the country’s ports on their way to installation.
Biomass and solar power have also been ramped up. Adding to existing hydropower, this means that renewables now account for 55% of the country’s overall energy mix (including transport fuel) compared with a global average share of 12%.
Despite its relatively small population of just 3.4 million, Uruguay has earned a remarkable amount of global kudos in recent years. It enacted groundbreaking marijuana legalisation, pioneered stringent tobacco control, and introduced some of the most liberal policies in Latin America on abortion and same-sex marriage.
Now, it is being recognised for progress on decarbonising its economy. It has been praised by the World Bank and the Economic commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and the WWF last year named Uruguay among its “Green Energy Leaders”, proclaiming: “The country is defining global trends in renewable energy investment.”
Cementing that reputation, Méndez – formerly the country’s national director of energy – has gone to this week’s UN talks with one of the world’s most ambitious national pledges: an 88% cut in carbon emissions by 2017 compared with the average for 2009-13.
There are no technological miracles involved, nuclear power is entirely absent from the mix, and no new hydroelectric power has been added for more than two decades. Instead, he says, the key to success is rather dull but encouragingly replicable: clear decision-making, a supportive regulatory environment and a strong partnership between the public and private sector.
As a result, energy investment – mostly for renewables, but also liquid gas – in Uruguay over the past five years has surged to $7bn, or 15% of the country’s annual GDP. That is five times the average in Latin America and three times the global share recommended by climate economist Nicholas Stern.
“What we’ve learned is that renewables is just a financial business,” Méndez says. “The construction and maintenance costs are low, so as long as you give investors a secure environment, it is a very attractive.”
The effects are apparent on Route 5 from Montevideo to the north. In less than 200 miles, you pass three agroindustrial plants running on biofuel and three windfarms . The biggest of them is the 115MW Peralta plant built and run by the German company, Enercon.
Its huge turbines – each 108 metres tall – tower over grasslands full of cattle and rhea birds .
Along with reliable wind – at an average of about 8mph – the main attraction for foreign investors like Enercon is a fixed price for 20 years that is guaranteed by the state utility. Because maintenance costs are low (just 10 staff) and stable, this guarantees a profit.
As a result, foreign firms are lining up to secure windfarm contracts. The competition is pushing down bids, cutting electricity generating costs by more than 30% over the past three years. Christian Schaefer, supervising technician at Enercon said his company was hoping to expand and another German company Nordex is already building an even bigger plant further north along route five. Trucks carrying turbines, towers and blades are now a common sight on the country’s roads.
Compared to most other small countries with high proportions of renewables, the mix is diverse. While Paraguay, Bhutan and Lesotho rely almost solely on hydro and Iceland on geothermal, Uruguay has a spread that makes it more resilient to changes in the climate.
Windfarms such as Peralta now feed into hydro power plants so that dams can maintain their reservoirs longer after rainy seasons. According to Méndez, this has reduced vulnerability to drought by 70% – no small benefit considering a dry year used to cost the country nearly 2% of GDP.
This is not the only benefit for the economy. “For three years we haven’t imported a single kilowatt hour,” Méndez says. “We used to be reliant on electricity imports from Argentina, but now we export to them. Last summer, we sold a third of our power generation to them.”
There is still a lot to do. The transport sector still depends on oil (which accounts for 45% of the total energy mix). But industry – mostly agricultural processing – is now powered predominantly by biomass cogeneration plants.
Méndez attributed Uruguay’s success to three key factors: credibility (a stable democracy that has never defaulted on its debts so it is attractive for long-term investments); helpful natural conditions (good wind, decent solar radiation and lots of biomass from agriculture); and strong public companies (which are a reliable partner for private firms and can work with the state to create an attractive operating environment).
While not every country in the world can replicate this model, he said Uruguay had proved that renewables can reduce generation costs, can meet well over 90% of electricity demand without the back-up of coal or nuclear power plants, and the public and private sectors can work together effectively in this field.
But, perhaps, the biggest lesson that Uruguay can provide to the delegates in Paris is the importance of strong decision-making. As has been the case at countless UN climate conferences, Uruguay was once paralysed by a seemingly endless and rancorous debate about energy policy.
All that changed when the government finally agreed on a long-term plan that drew cross-party support.
“We had to go through a crisis to reach this point. We spent 15 years in a bad place,” Méndez said. “But in 2008, we launched a long-term energy policy that covered everything … Finally we had clarity.”
That new direction made possible the rapid transition that is now reaping rewards.
Small nations, renewable giants
Uruguay gets 94.5% of its electricity from renewables. In addition to old hydropower plants, a hefty investment in wind, biomass and solar in recent years has raised the share of these sources in the total energy mix to 55%, compared with a global average of 12%, and about 20% in Europe.
Costa Rica went a record 94 consecutive days earlier this year without using fossil fuel for electricity, thanks to a mix of about 78% hydropower, 12% geothermal and 10% wind. The government has set a target of 100% renewable energy by 2021. But transport remains dirty.
Iceland has the advantage of being a nation of volcanoes, which has allowed it to tap geothermal sources of 85% of its heating and – with the assistance of hydropower – 100% of its electricity. This has made it the world’s largest green energy producer per capita.
Paraguay has one huge hydropower dam at Itaipu, which supplies 90% of the country’s electricity.
Lesotho gets 100% of its electricity from a cascade of dams that have enough spare capacity to export power to South Africa.
Bhutan’s abundant hydropower resources generate a surplus of electricity that accounts for more than 40% of the country’s export earnings. But over-reliance on one source can be a problem. In the dry season, it has to import power from India. more