Navarre's Stunning Clean Energy Success a Lesson for US Policymakers

Over the past 15 years, Spain's Navarre region has undergone the sort of energy transformation President Barack Obama dreams of creating in America. In the process, the home of Pamplona's running of the bulls has proved that a green jobs movement can pay off in GDP.

Speaking at a renewable energy conference in New York last night—while Washington was dancing at countless inaugural balls -- Navarre President Miguel Sanz Sesma explained the secrets of clean energy success.

Navarre's energy numbers are staggering: A full 65 percent of the region's energy now comes from renewable sources. By 2010, it expects to reach 75 percent, and it has a goal of becoming completely energy self-sufficient. Obama's goal of more than doubling the United States' renewable energy use to 25 percent by 2025 pales in comparison.

Navarre's experience suggests to the new U.S. president that supporting state-level efforts to advance renewable energy production might provide the biggest payoff.

The mountainous area of northeast Spain, about twice the size of Delaware, saw the writing on the wall well over a decade ago. It began developing an entirely new economic sector in renewable energy in 1995 after concluding that its reliance on energy imports was obstructing economic development.

That clean energy sector now supports nearly 100 companies, a research center, a technical school specializing in renewable technologies, and employs about 2 percent of the region's active workforce. It contributes about 5 percent to Navarre's gross domestic product, and as early as 2003, the European Union recognized Navarre's policies as the best in the renewable energy sector.

"As far as environmental benefits are concerned, since 2000, clean energies have avoided atmospheric emissions of over 20 million tons of CO2," Navarre President Miguel Sanz Sesma said last night.

When the Navarre's effort began, the region's leaders set the bar high and began preaching the benefits of energy independence, efficiency and conservation.

With a population of only about 600,000, the region is small enough that they were able to bring the major stakeholders from business, science, local governments and the citizenry together to create a collaborative energy plan with nearly universal buy-in. Navarre also has enough autonomy from the Spanish government that it could act without delays and excessive red tape.

"We've been able to move faster than the Spanish government," Sanz said.

Navarre started its mission toward energy independence with a 1995 energy plan that set a goal of creating 341 MW of renewable energy capacity by 2000.

The regional government built public-private partnerships with banks and industries to begin constructing a renewable energy sector at home (the wind turbine manufacturer Gamesa Eolica was a product of the collaborations). The regional government also provided tax credits and financial aid to encourage investment in renewable energy assets, and officials emphasized energy efficiency and conservation to the population.

Within five years, Navarre had nearly doubled its goal, reaching 667 MW of renewable energy capacity. Today, Navarre's wind power—46 percent of its total renewable energy—is on track to reach 1,400 MW by 2010. The regional government also offers incentives to encourage energy efficiency, such as grants to buy electric vehicles or replace old home applicances, and even courses in efficient driving.

Although not as successful yet as Navarre, dozens of U.S. state governments have been acting independently to propel clean energy development in the absence of federal leadership.

They, like Navarre, have assembled stakeholders to develop clean energy strategies as part of comprehensive, economy-wide climate action plans; and like Navarre, the policies have enjoyed almost unanimous approval. About half the states now have renewable portfolio standards requiring energy providers to get a percentage of their energy from renewable sources by a certain date.

California's RPS is one of the toughest, with a minimum of 20 percent from renewable sources by 2010. New York's RPS requires 24 percent by 2013, and Gov. David Patterson earlier this month called for a new standard of 45 percent from renewable sources by 2015.

On Thursday, Maine Gov. John Baldacci will unveil New England's largest wind farm, a string of 38 wind turbines on Stetson Mountain that will produce 57 megawatts of energy, a fairly small amount but enough to power 23,500 homes. Texas, a leader in wind energy, fired up a new 166-MW wind project near Austin on Monday, pushing Austin closer to its goal of 30 percent electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

In fact, the American Wind Energy Association expects wind turbines in the U.S. to produce more than 60 billion kWh of electricity this year, enough to power 5.5 million homes and save more than 36 million tons of CO2 that would have come from the same energy production by fossil fuels.

As Obama took the oath of office yesterday, he promised that America "will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories." The small, autonomous region of Navarre still has important lessons to offer the new president, including how to engineer social acceptance of change.

For example, plans in Massachusetts to develop an offshore wind farm that would be in sight of some wealthy and powerful Cape Cod residents has been held up for seven years. Countless court fights later, the Cape Wind project appears to be back on track, though opponents are still fighting.

Navarre's leaders developed a different approach for siting turbines in its beautiful, sparsely populated mountains. Wind "parks" were designed as true parks to bring people closer to the technology. Schoolchildren learn about wind power on field trips. Government officials also talk regularly about the value of conservation and renewable energy, and have helped to make renewable energy and sustainability part of the culture.

Navarre also took concerns about interrupted views into consideration. Rather than adding more wind farms, it is now focusing on upgrading the current ones to increase their capacity. Its research and development centers are engineering new turbines that can produce up to 2 MW now, and Navarre is using them to replace the original 0.5-MW turbines.

"In Navarre, renewable energies are not perceived as something imposed from the outside by the government, but as something that has been developed with the full backing and, I would dare to say, the demand of the citizens," Sanz said.

Many state governments are laggard in their approach to clean energy, and the new U.S. president will still need to set a minimum requirement from Washington if he hopes to reach his goals.

The national plan must address both the supply side and the demand side of energy use, said energy analyst Chris Gadomski, an adjunct professor at NYU. The plan will also need teeth, he said — for a renewable energy policy to succeed in the United States, it must be enforceable and enforced, or the policy will be ignored.

Unless, perhaps, the stunning success of Navarre becomes more widely known. 

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