If you had to guess who is winning the renewable energy race, you might pick the rich northern European countries. Equipped with robust conservation and innovation agendas, they should be the runaway leaders.
The reality is somewhat different. Some of the stars of the big Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, including Germany and Denmark, are the dogs of the Paris edition now under way, partly because of their continued reliance on coal, the dirtiest fuel, to generate much of their electricity.
In Paris this week, Norway, another allegedly progressive name on the clean-energy front, won a "Fossil of the Day" award, handed out by environmental groups, for its alleged blocking manoeuvres in drafting a global agreement to send carbon dioxide emissions plummeting.
At this climate conference, some of the rich countries are getting upstaged by several small, developing countries that are making remarkable strides in removing planet-warming fossil fuels from their energy mix.
In Africa, the leader is no doubt Morocco. In Europe, it is probably Portugal, and in South America, the standout star is little Uruguay. A few other small and not wealthy countries, including Costa Rica, Jordan, Paraguay and Lesotho, are also becoming ambitious renewable energy players.
"These countries are definitely a sign that renewable energy is well on its way," said Leehi Yona, a senior fellow at New Hampshire's Dartmouth College who is studying renewable energy.
In Morocco, the first phase of the world's largest concentrated solar power plant, called Noor 1, is on the verge of flicking on the switch. When it is finished, the $9-billion (U.S.) project, which is being financed by a mixture of public and private investment, including funds from the African Development Bank, will supply electricity to 1.1 million Moroccans by 2018. "Morocco stands at the forefront of climate-friendly policies in the region," the World Bank said in a report.
At the Paris climate conference, where negotiators are trying to strike a carbon-reduction deal by Friday night that would limit global warming by 2 degrees Celsius, Morocco's Environment Minister Hakima El Haite was not careful not to use the Noor project to shame wealthier countries with less ambitious renewable-energy plans.
Morocco, she said, simply can't afford to keep importing almost all of its energy needs, nor can it afford to allow fossil fuels to keep polluting its air and increasingly rare water resources, "For us, clean energy will allow us to decrease the cost of energy on our state budget and help to preserve the environment," she said in an interview Wednesday. "Our aim is to produce enough energy so that we can export it to Europe."
She said Morocco's goal is to install enough renewable-energy capacity to supply 52 per cent of the country's energy mix by 2030, up from 8 to 10 per cent now. Wind turbines will also play a big role in the effort.
The Noor project is already vast. It is being constructed on a 30-square-kilometre site on near the city of Ouarzazate, on the edge of the Sahara, the production site for some of the scenes from the TV series Game of Thrones and the epic film Lawrence of Arabia. The energy does not come from traditional photovoltaic cells. Instead, tens of thousands of crescent-shaped mirrors direct the sun's energy to heat up a liquid, which is mixed with water to produce steam. The steam, in turn, drives the turbines that generate electricity.
To assist the transition away from fossil fuels, Morocco is also phasing out fossil fuels subsidies, which will save the equivalent of €490-million a year. "That's a lot of money for us," Ms. El Haite said.
Not far away, Portugal is also making a gallant effort to wean itself off fossil fuels. At the end of last year, renewable energy accounted for 27 per cent of total energy use, including transportation, in the country. Portugal's goal is to lift the share of renewable energy to 40 per cent by 2030. On some days, when the wind blows, the sun shines and the water reservoirs are full, the country generates almost all of its electricity from renewables.
It is Uruguay, however, that is leading the way on the renewables charge. According to an article last week in The Guardian, renewable energy provides almost 95 per cent of the country's electricity, thanks to burgeoning amounts of solar, wind and biomass power. The effort was done without government subsidies and without higher costs to consumers. In the last three years, Uruguay has imported no electricity from neighbouring countries.
"It's not just technology that is driving them; it's political will," said Dartmouth College's Ms. Yona.