In a few places around the world, humans have achieved a feat that seemed impossible just a few years ago, and still seems inconceivable nearly everywhere else: They’ve stopped burning fossil fuels for electricity.
Throughout 2015, several nations, states and cities announced they had either managed the switch to renewables, or to a massive increase in non-polluting energy production. It’s a big shift from a time when, after the financial crash of 2008, many dismissed renewable energy as unscalable, niche, or too expensive to consider.
So who is producing the most power from renewable sources, and how are they doing it? The areas that go 100% renewable tend to combine two factors: great natural resources (like the terrain needed for hydropower) and small populations (getting power to everyone is easier when there are only a few million of them). Others might not be quite at 100% yet—but are taking impressive steps towards it.
A small country in both land mass and population, Costa Rica made headlines in March when it emerged that the country had been running on only renewable energy for 75 days of 2015, after heavy rains souped-up its hydropower schemes. Running a country on renewables for a stint (even a long one) isn’t the same as having a steady system that fulfills all a country’s needs, but it’s still impressive.
Other countries with great hydropower capacity include Albania, Afghanistan and Lesotho. A test for many of them in the future will be finding ways to develop their economies without a sudden ramp up in fossil fuel use.
A leader in wind power, Denmark produces enough power from its turbines for 40% of its (small) population—unusual for a developed country with high energy needs. But Denmark also exemplifies the “intermittent” nature of renewables which can make them tricky to incorporate into grids built for steady, reliable energy streams. On some windy days this year, Denmark produced as much as 140% of its own needs. The excess is exported, when possible, but better storage would make the excess even more valuable.
Austria’s largest state announced this year that it had achieved a goal of 100% renewable power by harnessing the power of the Danube, and supplementing that hydropower with solar and biomass. It now runs carbon free. The rest of the country also does well in comparison to many of its European neighbors.
Norway and Iceland
Natural resources helped both these countries achieve close to 100% renewable power, years ago: Iceland mainly through geothermal heat, and Norway through hydropower.
A bunch of islands
Island nations are some of the most vulnerable to climate change, but their geography makes renewable energy an obvious choice. Surrounding waters can be used for ocean energy or offshore wind, while the alternatives aren’t great: on-site power plants, imported fuel, and expensive undersea cables.
In 2012, Tokelau, a set of three tiny islands between New Zealand and Hawaii, replaced its diesel energy system with one based on solar. The Orkney islands off Scotland, a hub for research on marine energy where many locals also have a wind turbine in their garden, currently produces more that 100% of its energy needs.
Though nowhere near 100% renewable, Germany deserves a mention. On its best day in 2015, Germany produced 78% of its total electricity needs from renewables, thanks to a massive program of building and investment undertaken as part of the country’s “Energiewende”, or energy transformation, aimed at moving the nation away from both fossil fuels and nuclear.
In the first half of 2014, Germany produced an average of 31% of its energy from renewables. For a developed country with a population of 80 million, that’s huge. It also produced more renewable energy overall than any other European country.
With a deal reached at the climate conference in Paris this month that should pave the way for far more investment in renewable energy—especially from rich countries helping poor ones “leapfrog” the fossil era—2015 may well have been the best year ever for renewable energy. It’s a trend that looks set to continue.