In 2005, I attended an international conference in Montreal on the Kyoto Protocol. There, I heard a speech by German parliamentarian Hermann Scheer. I knew nothing about him, but as I listened to him talk about how Germany had become the world's leading exporter of wind technology and was on its way to phasing out its nuclear reactors, I was blown away. Here was a politician who articulated the obvious realities about energy: fossil fuels are finite and will run out, the biggest sources of oil are often in the most politically volatile regions, nuclear energy is also nonrenewable and bequeaths a legacy of radioactive waste for thousands of generations, and the sun provides free, clean energy in abundance to all nations.
I have since come to know this canny, fearless politician who has stayed true to his beliefs for four decades and has become so popular he doesn't have to play party politics. The problem of energy, he told me recently in Berlin, is not technological; it is political in the broadest sense. Once the decision is made to exploit a particular form of energy — nuclear, hydro, fossil fuel, renewable — all kinds of expertise and infrastructure are built up.
So, for example, once the decision is made to use oil, geologists are needed to find the oil, extraction methods must be developed, the crude has to be refined, delivery systems must get the oil to consumers, gas stations must be built, and so on. All of these levels now have a huge stake in the oil industry, so it's not surprising that when someone suggests that alternative energy sources like sunlight have many advantages over fossil fuels, the response is "ludicrous", "impossible", "it will never contribute more than a fraction of our needs", "unreliable", "too expensive", and on and on. What Dr. Scheer means by political, I believe, is the mindset that results from having such a heavy investment in the status quo.
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After the OPEC oil embargo in 1973, Dr. Scheer, who has a doctorate in economics, realized that energy was a major weakness in Germany's industrial future. The country didn't have oil reserves or large rivers for hydroelectric projects and so was generating electricity with nuclear and coal plants. He realized that this made Germany vulnerable to the vagaries of geopolitics and that these were not sustainable forms of energy.
He recognized that the sun radiates more than enough energy and that this energy from the sun or secondary sources like wind, wave, and biomass are sustainable. Even though he was a politician, Dr. Scheer founded the nonprofit Eurosolar to encourage renewable-energy initiatives in all sectors of society. His efforts, which coincided with the rise of the anti-nuclear Green party in Germany, struck a chord. Could renewable energy provide enough energy to shut down all nuclear plants? Dr. Scheer knew it could, even though scientists and other "experts" declared it was impossible for renewables to account for more than a small percentage of the nation's electricity.
With the Green party holding the balance of power in a left-wing coalition government, Dr. Scheer was able to introduce an innovative plan, a feed-in tariff, which commits the country to accept all renewable energy (primarily wind and solar) onto the grid and to guarantee a premium price for that energy for 20 years. That provided a huge incentive for individuals or co-ops to build turbines and install solar panels because banks would not hesitate to provide loans given those conditions.
As a recent article in the Globe and Mail noted, the feed-in tariff, beyond giving Germany more than 20,000 megawatts of clean energy, has also created new economic opportunities. The renewable-energy sector now "generates about $24-billion in annual revenues and employs a quarter-million Germans. Germany's wind industry created 8,000 jobs in 2007 alone, and one recent study suggested that the renewable sector could provide more work than the auto industry (currently the nation's biggest employer) by 2020."
Many people have been calling for a switch to renewable energy. Nobel laureate and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore has called on the U.S. to switch to 100 per cent renewable energy within 10 years. In response, we've heard the same old tune from a chorus of stuck-in-the-oil naysayers. Someone should introduce them to Herman Scheer.