Energy Autonomy: The Economic, Social and Technological Case for Renewable Energy
by Hermann Scheer
Reviewed by April Placencia
Hermann Scheer -- president of EUROSOLAR, general chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy and member of the German Bundestag (Parliament) -- is not satisfied with the current global prospects for renewable energy. In his latest book, Energy Autonomy: The Economic, Social and Technological Case for Renewable Energy, he tackles the "one-dimensional thinking" and "blockades to action" that are preventing renewable energy from becoming a major source of energy for the world. He also lays out a strategy for true energy autonomy -- a diverse, decentralized energy structure that relies on regional resources rather than large centralized power plants.
Wind, wave, hydro, biomass, photovoltaic (PV), and solar thermal energy are all derived from solar power, so when the author refers to solar power he is talking about all renewable energies. Geothermal and tidal energy are not derivatives of solar energy, but they are considered a part of this "solar" portfolio. Scheer does not support hydrogen -- and believes hope for a "hydrogen economy" is misguided -- unless it is acknowledged as a secondary energy source, is produced and reused in a decentralized way, and is promoted in conjunction with solar radiation (PV) and wind power. Hydrogen is not a primary energy resource, and is renewable only if it is produced from an energy source that is renewable. Because hydrogen can be produced using fossil fuels it has received support from corporations who are dependent on fossil fuels. For this reason, Scheer is wary of widespread support for hydrogen.
Scheer does not consider nuclear energy to be a viable alternative to fossil fuels or renewable energy. He contends that nuclear energy is too dangerous because peaceful civilian uses are so closely tied to military applications. In addition, nuclear energy production consumes resources such as water, divides global society into the "haves" and the "have-nots," requires a significant amount of backup capacity, and creates waste that is hazardous and difficult to deal with. In the chapter "Sun or Atom," he writes at length about the "nuclear crisis," the high costs of atomic energy, and the less-than-stellar payoff of nuclear energy.
The author rejects the notion that renewable energy can thrive within the context of the established energy industry. He argues that renewable energy cannot be produced or delivered in the same way as our current energy supply, which makes it a threat to the energy industry. For this reason, he believes, the energy industry will never truly pursue the full potential of renewable energy. He acknowledges that multinational energy companies can no longer afford to ignore renewable energy outright, but they will do everything to ensure that profits are not negatively impacted, and will try to force renewable energy into the existing "sprawling energy supply structure." The motivation to pigeonhole renewable energy into the existing energy structure is exactly what is holding renewable energy back.
Scheer does not agree that the hurdles to implementing renewable energy are technological or economic, and since he has helped shape policies that make cloudy Germany the world leader in solar and wind power installations, he has experience to back his claims. The main hurdles are political. The energy industry has too much power over the mindset of politicians and investors, who are too concerned with the current price of energy without regard to environmental damages or the future supply of fossil fuels. He advocates a shift in thinking that would allow for a substitution of technology costs for fuel costs.
Multilateral campaigns are also part of the problem, according to Scheer. Widely-touted, multilateral initiatives such as the Kyoto Treaty don't go far enough to promote renewable energy, and instead hinder its progress. He also points out that renewable energy professionals have been excluded from major renewable energy conferences in the last few years, and so no serious efforts will come of these gatherings. He supports a global technology market, where countries share technologies, combined with a regional resources market, where countries establish policies unilaterally with local resources and demand in mind.
Advancement of renewable energy requires what every social movement needs to succeed, "a productive mutual relationship among impulses, legislation that takes up these impulses, and entrepreneurial initiatives." Scheer stresses that municipal legislatures and local renewable energy businesses are the ideal candidates to lead the course to achieve decentralized energy autonomy. He points out:
The global fossil/nuclear energy system has, in spite of its dominance, proven incapable of supplying the world's population with energy. One-third of humanity has continued to be excluded from what that system has supplied. The number of those excluded is bound to increase, not decline, and so will the glaring disparities in global economic development.
The increase in disparity between developing countries and industrialized countries will only serve to further strain industrialized countries, leading to additional insecurity. A decentralized energy system based on renewable energy has the potential to create jobs, increase national and international security, and provide a stable energy supply to those who don't have access to large grid systems, not to mention the environmental benefits.
Scheer wants advocates of renewable energy -- his primary audience for this book -- to refuse to settle for small steps that take into consideration the interests of the established energy industry. His vision for the future of energy is compelling, and his strategy, laid out in detail in his last chapter, "Energy Autonomy," is well-prepared. Those interested in renewable energy should examine his perspective as a world leader in renewable energy policy.