Tuesday 13 May 2008

Endless Possibility

Hermann Scheer has been described both as the "solar king" and the "Stalin of windpower", but the German MP behind the revolutionary project to make his country completely energy self-sufficient is sanguine. "Our dependence on fossil fuels amounts to global pyromania," he says, letting out the characteristically jolly chuckle that escapes whenever he is making a serious point. "And the only fire extinguisher we have at our disposal is renewable energy".

Scheer, chair of the World Council for Renewable Energy, has been a fierce advocate of renewables for more than 20 years, and it was he who came up with the idea of the "feed-in tariff law", which has been picked up across Europe and by opposition parties in Britain. According to what has become known as "Scheer's law", German households and businesses that generate renewable energy can sell it back to the grid at more than triple the normal market price.

"The key to it working is that consumers have guaranteed access to the grid at guaranteed prices," explains 63-year-old Scheer, a qualified economist. This probably goes further than any single piece of national legislation in the world to encourage the growth of the renewable energy industry.

Power companies do not like it, but it has given incredible verve to an industry that had not until now had many believers. More than 300,000 individuals and small businesses have jumped at the opportunity in Germany, and the number is rising all the time. Scheer's family, whose house is powered by a windmill, is among them.

"The general target is to mobilise all renewable options, producing a renewable energy mix and reducing the dependency on conventional energy over time," he says. So far, 15% of Germany's energy comes from renewables, an increase of 11% in just eight years. By 2030 at the latest, the 100% target should have been reached. "We could increase the speed of this growth if it weren't for the barriers we're facing at local and regional levels," he says, citing both psychological and legal obstacles.

Scheer's law has created whole new industries - wind power, which employs 80,000 people in Germany, and photovoltaic (solar) power, which employs 40,000. The jobs are, in effect, subsidised, but in time this will become less and less significant because of the system's commercial success. Both wind and solar sectors are growing at around 30% a year, making them attractive for investors and for developers of technology. The potential returns are huge.

Feed-in tariff

Several Mediterranean countries - including Spain, Italy and Portugal - have latched on to Scheer's law and are in the process of introducing it. The governments of Brazil and China have also called on Scheer to advise them as to how they might apply it. In Britain, the Conservative leader, David Cameron, has shown an interest in the feed-in tariff concept, which Scheer will make the focus of his address to a parliamentary committee on environmental matters.

Scheer comes to London next week as part of the Royal Institute of British Architects' series of architecture and climate change talks. But while Britain is under pressure to adopt something similar, Scheer can feel the strong resistance to his ideas in a government that appears to be more wedded to nuclear power and coal. He calls the British government's negative attitudes towards renewables "small-minded" and "inexplicable".

He dismisses the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform's view that the feed-in tariff, with its system of subsidies, stifles competition. "The fact is that the subsidies paid for fossil and nuclear energy are much higher - hundreds of millions of pounds a year - around 10 times more than has been spent on renewables over the past two decades," he says. "And nuclear power stations, for instance, are even relieved from having to pay their huge insurance bill because the taxpayer picks it up. So this argument about renewables and subsidies doesn't stand up.

"I cannot understand the [UK government's] attitude. I think it's a big mistake, based on ignorance over years about the real potential of renewable energies. Because this was ignored, there's a so-called nuclear renaissance taking place, and according to the British government this will happen without public money. This will never work. I assume this is just a trick to get the British public support for nuclear, but without public money it's impossible."

He also cites the damage he thinks British independent scientist James Lovelock has done for the renewables cause, with his claim that only nuclear power can halt global warming - an attitude that the government seems to have adopted. Scheer says: "[Lovelock] says renewable energies cannot work, but he shows that he has practically no knowledge of the real state and development of renewable energy whatsoever." Among the myths, he says, are that renewables are expensive to acquire and unreliable. "What's happening in Germany proves that that's not the case, and the more widespread it becomes, the better the technology will be and the cheaper it will be."

Scheer will try to communicate that when in London. "I'll tell them all about the benefits renewables have for economic, cultural and civilian development, and will urge them not just to look at actual cost comparisons, because that's such a small-minded view and with that we can't find a grand strategy or solve this macro-economic and macro-ecological problem."

Scheer, a holder of the Alternative Nobel Prize, and a self-described "possibilist", would like to reverse the view in Britain, which he refers to as "the unbroken power of one-dimensional thinking", by demonstrating how free and plentiful renewables are compared to fossil fuels and nuclear. "The amount of sun, wind, geothermal and bioenergy at our disposal is by far sufficient," he says. "Take just the sun - it sends around 15,000 times more energy to our planet than all 6 billion people need. These resources are indefinite and cheap - the sun and wind won't be sending you a bill, and neither can you privatise them.

"And don't give me the arguments against the aesthetics of windmills. They're not there to be liked - it's enough to accept that they're necessary, because we need 100% emission-free energies. Who, after all, likes power lines? But they're accepted. Here we're dealing with an existential problem."

To illustrate the unmilked potential in Britain, he points out that Germany is home to 20 times more installed windpower systems than the UK, "although the UK has better wind conditions, longer coastlines, and more space for good sites". The difference is, he says, "thanks to the feed-in tariff, we created an industrial dynamic".

Scheer is the author of the seminal works A Solar Manifesto and The Solar Economy, the most widely-read books on the subject of the transition to renewable energy. In them he argues that modern technologies will help create a "solar information society". Backing his point is the world's first mass implementation programme of photovoltaic solar energy roofs, which Scheer helped to push. It saw 100,000 solar roofs installed in homes and businesses across Germany.

"We're talking about the most important and exciting structural change of civilisation since the beginning of the industrial age," he says, with another chuckle. "The benefits and ramifications are huge. Not only do renewables mitigate climate change, they also give us cleaner cities, improved health, revitalise the agricultural economy so that the farmers of today will become the oil sheikhs of tomorrow, and fight underdevelopment and deprivation in the developing world."

Social commitment

One of the most exciting aspects, he says, is the boost given to the freedom of individuals as they become less dependent on conventional power and its providers. "You give people energy independence and you get social commitment - you only get that with renewables," he argues.

Even national security issues could be overcome, and wars over energy become obsolete. "Look at all the political support there is for oil and gas," he says. "For a start, you could get rid of the British costs for military commitment in Iraq which belongs to the oil bill. Think of the savings!"

At some point, Scheer believes his ideas will become commonplace. He lets the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer make the point for him. "There are three stages to a new idea," Scheer says. "At first, it is ignored. Second, there is strong opposition against it. And finally, those who once opposed it set about introducing the initiatives themselves as if they'd been theirs all along."

· Hermann Scheer will be speaking on April 22 at the Royal Institute of British Architects as part of its International Dialogues: Architecture and Climate Change series. Tickets are available through architecture.com

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