Europe Switches to Carbon Neutral Energy

Offshore wind farm in Denmark. monbetsu hokkaido/Moment/Getty

The European Union mandates both greenhouse gas emission reductions and renewable energy capacity increases through its 2020 Climate and Energy Package. Individual European countries have thus been steadily increasing their reliance on electricity sources that have no net production of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The U.S. Energy Information Administration has released data on Europe’s electricity portfolio for the most recent year available, 2012.

Here are some of the main highlights:

  • Iceland produces 100% of its electricity from sources producing no carbon emissions. About 72% comes from hydropower, and for the rest Iceland takes advantage of its position on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to exploit geothermal resources. Steam collected underground is used to spin turbines, which in turn produce electricity.
  • Switzerland’s electricity portfolio is also carbon-neutral, with most of the energy coming from hydropower and four nuclear power plants.
  • Norway has long been relying on a massive network of hydroelectric dams and generator stations for almost all of its electricity. Incidentally, the Vemork power plant played a fascinating role in a chapter of World War II, involving heavy water, sabotage, and other covert operations aimed at preventing Nazi Germany from developing an atomic bomb.
  • Over 95% of Sweden’s electricity comes from carbon-neutral sources, mainly hydro and three nuclear power plants.
  • France is even more dependent on nuclear energy, with over 75% of its electricity produced in 59 nuclear reactors distributed between 19 power plants.
  • Austria also relies on hydroelectricity (62% of total electricity production), but it has significantly built up contributions from wind farms and biomass generators.
  • Finland has traditionally relied heavily on nuclear energy and hydropower, but has also developed important biomass generation capacity. Its Jakobstad Power Station can produce 265 megawatts of electricity from forestry byproducts, like chipped wood debris.
  • Alternative energy sources like wind and solar have been making significant advances in many countries. For example, in Germany between 2002 and 2012, nuclear energy production decreased its contribution to the total energy portfolio by 12%, while solar, wind, and biomass generation reached 15 % of the total.Overall, Germany's carbon neutral proportion now stands at 41% of the total energy portfolio.
  • By 2014, wind farms were a major contributor to the energy portfolio of Denmark (38%, mostly from off-shore wind farms), Portugal (23%), Spain (21%), and Ireland (19%).
  • Overall, 13 countries use carbon-free sources of power for at least 50% of their total electricity generation.
  • Nowhere in Europe does solar power provide more than 5% of a country’s electricity, but there have been serious efforts in that sector in Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, Belgium, and Greece.

By comparison, in 2012 the United States generated 32% of its electricity from sources considered free from carbon emissions, and that percentage is going to increase.

Just as in Europe, that proportion is comprised mostly of hydropower and nuclear power plants. Individual state performance varies a lot; some states are doing great, others made little efforts to move toward renewables. Note that hydroelectricity carries many environmental costs, while nuclear energy struggles with waste management and safety, but generally these sources produce no carbon dioxide. Electricity generation from biomass can produce greenhouse gases, but some researchers estimate that over the entire life cycle, there is only minimal net emissions (for example, trees grow and capture carbon dioxide, then the wood releases it during power generation).


Norsk Hydro. The Heroes of Telemark.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. European Nations Are Increasing Electricity Generation Using No-Carbon Sources.