Interview with solar champion Hermann Scheer
NewScientist has a great interview with German Social Democrat MP Hermann Scheer, who chairs the World Council for Renewable Energy and has done as much as anyone alive to spread the word on solar power.
Unfortunately, it’s behind a subscription wall, so you can’t read it. But have no fear! I’ll post a big chunk of it below the fold:
What did you do about it?
Ten years ago, I called for a programme to install solar panels on 100,000 roofs in Germany, so that we could have mass production as soon as possible. I wanted it in my party’s programme in the 1998 elections. Even Greenpeace said my plan was unrealistic, and my colleagues asked why we should be more radical than Greenpeace. But I persuaded them, and the programme was implemented within four years. In 2000, with colleagues, I launched the Renewable Energy Sources act, which ensures that independent producers generating excess electricity can sell it to the grid at a guaranteed price. Now renewables account for nearly 15 per cent of electricity generated in Germany.
You are very critical of the Kyoto protocol. Why?
The protocol starts from the premise that the solutions to climate change will be an economic burden. So it is all about how we share this burden. But it is not an economic burden; it is a new economic opportunity. So I don’t accept the idea of issuing emission rights that can be traded. It is like giving rights to trade in drugs, and saying drug dealers can buy and sell those rights.
But you can’t make all carbon dioxide emissions illegal, can you?
No. But this is an ethical question. It is not normal in civilised societies to dump household waste in the street. You pay for it to be taken away. But with energy emissions we are allowed to dump our waste in the atmosphere.
I was the only person to vote against the emissions trading law in the Bundestag [the German parliament]. I said that it goes against all our experience on how technological revolutions happen. Of all the technological revolutions in the last 200 years, which of them happened because of an international treaty? Not one. They happened because they were accepted as important, superior and necessary for the future.
Don’t these changes in energy technology require changes in the way our society is organised?
To take advantage of this integrated system, we have to have localised energy production, near the farms. Solar and wind power is also best provided locally. This is completely different from the fossil fuel energy system, where production and consumption are separate – often on opposite sides of the world – and you need a huge amount of infrastructure to link them up.
The German government is talking about sticking with fossil fuels like coal, but capturing and burying the emissions. Isn’t this a practical low-carbon solution?
I believe it is a fake. Carbon capture is technologically but not economically feasible. It reduces energy efficiency, because of the energy needed to capture the carbon dioxide and run the extra infrastructure. And at the end, you still have the problem of making sure the carbon stays safely in storage for thousands of years. It is like the problem with nuclear waste, possibly even worse.
Today, this idea is being used as a justification for building new coal-fired power stations, with the promise that in maybe 15 years the carbon could be captured. These promises won’t be fulfilled. In any case, carbon capture would cost much more than renewables, so why bother?
People talk about introducing a low-carbon economy. I don’t like that term. It is a way to smuggle in nuclear power generation and carbon capture. We should talk instead about a renewable energy economy. There is plenty of renewable energy for all our needs.
Many environmentalists are pessimists and don’t believe in technical fixes. But you are a real techno-optimist.
Yes, because I see the opportunities for renewables. I see that they can provide 100 per cent of our energy, and they can be introduced very fast. All the great technological revolutions happen much more quickly than even the experts and enthusiasts guess. The forecasts for the spread of cellphones and IT were all overtaken by the reality. The renewables revolution will be the same.
The IT and mobile phone revolutions were also the first technological revolutions in modern times that were not about centralising power. They were about decentralising. And this will happen to energy from renewables. The big old-fashioned power stations and long supply chains will be replaced by local supplies for local markets. This is changing the tide of history.