Green vs. Brown - 5 Countries Using Plenty of Renewable Energy & 5 Who Use None

Geothermal power plant in Iceland, photo: via flickr

The United States has a long road ahead in transforming its electrical generation to greener sources of power, no doubt about that. But not every nation faces the same energy challenges. Some nations have it much easier, already using a great deal of renewable energy; and some nations have it much, much worse, being nearly entirely dependent on coal. For the sake of perspective, let's take a quick look at some places which made the political commitment to have some of the greenest and some of the brownest electric generation on the planet:
Lake Arenal, Costa Rica was formed in 1979 to provide hydropower to the nation. Photo: Eric via flickr

Scandinavia & Latin America Both Have Hydro a Plenty

It may be hard to believe but there are a number of countries whose electricity comes entirely or very close to entirely from renewable energy sources. When it comes to making the transition to low-carbon electricity, these places are already there.

All of the time that includes a hefty portion of hydropower, which much of the time isn't exactly green in terms of environmental impact (or sometimes social impact) but in terms of actual electricity generation is carbon-free and does use a renewable resource.

Whether expanding hydropower really is a sustainable option in the long-term is certainly up for debate, but it's way better than burning fossil fuels.

Leading the world green electricity race are 1) Iceland and 1) Norway, both generating a full 100% of their electricity from green sources -- Norway gets 99% from hydro and 1% from other renewable sources of energy; Iceland has, as many people know, a good deal of geothermal power (27%), with hydro making up the remaining 73%.

Coming in third is 3) Costa Rica, which gets 94% of its electricity from green sources: 76% hydropower and 18% from other renewable sources (largely geothermal).

Fourth place is occupied by 4) Brazil, with 87% hydropower and other renewable sources of electricity. 5) Colombia holds down fifth place with 80% renewable electricity (all but 1%, again, hydropower).

NOTE: There are a number of other, smaller nations which get all or nearly all of their electricity from hydropower -- Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nepal, others -- but considering that none of these actually produce much electricity to start with I took them out the running.

Empty coal train, Australia. Photo: Nomad Tales via flickr.

A Coal Habit is Hard to Kick

Way at the other end of the scale are a handful of countries which are entirely dependent on a non-renewable and highly carbon intensive way to generate electricity: Coal.

At the bottom of the heap is Poland with South Africa piled right on top -- the latter gets 93% of its electricity from coal, the former 96%. In the case of South Africa, it recently instituted very generous feed-in tariffs to start weaning itself off coal, but in the case of Poland no such move seems imminent.

Slightly up from the bottom is Estonia, generating 90% of its electricity from coal.

And then there is the 10,000 pound elephant in the room: China. The world's number one producer of greenhouse gases gets 80% of its electricity from coal. That electricity likely produces most of the consumer goods you buy on a daily basis. In fact one-third of China's emissions are tied directly to goods made for export.

China is making a strong push to install more wind and solar power, as well as (controversially, considering its past efforts and large-scale disregard for neighboring countries downstream) hydropower. But, it's also continuing to put up new coal-fired power plants at an alarming rate.

Only slightly better than China is Australia which uses coal to generate about 79% of its electricity. And you wonder why prime minister Kevin Rudd was so enthusiastic about establishing a new clean coal institute Down Under.

NOTE: Like with hydropower, there are a couple of nations which use coal for a full 100% of their power (Botswana being one), or a full 100% oil for their electricity -- only very slightly better than coal for carbon emissions here -- like Yemen and Iraq, but since the amount of electricity produced is not even remotely comparable to the other nations here, they didn't make the cut.

Where Does the US Stand? In case you don't have the stats ingrained into your brain, here's how the United States' current electricity mix stands, on a national basis (individual states vary): Coal is used for 49%; Oil for 2%; Natural Gas just under 22%; Nuclear, 19%; Hydropower is just under 6% and other renewables 2.5%.

More on Renewable Energy, Hydropower & Coal
China's Coal Fires Burn 20 Million Tons of Coal Per Year
Australia Carbon Capture and Storage Research Institute Opens: Just PR Spin?
China's Stunning New Renewable Energy Standard: 20 Percent by 2020
Geothermal Iceland Generates Its Own Electricity
Want to Live a Long, Happy, Sustainable Life? Consider Central America

Tags: Australia | Brazil | China | Coal | Costa Rica | Hydropower | Iceland | Norway | Renewable Energy | South Africa

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