News & Media Opinion Pieces Book Review: Energy Autonomy. The economic, social and technological case for renewable energy

Book Review: Energy Autonomy. The economic, social and technological case for renewable energy

By Hermann Scheer
Member of the German Parliament, since 1980;
President of EUROSOLAR – The European Association for Renewable Energy;
General Chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy (WCRE);

Published by Earthscan/James&James: ISBN 1-84407-355-6, 2006 (310 pages)

Members of DEA are increasingly interested in renewable energy and this topic is reviewed in detail in DEA’s “An Energy Policy for Australia” Europe has become the power house of alternative energy development and Hermann Scheer is a leading figure in these developments. We are grateful to Bryan Furnass for reviewing Scheer’s latest book

Solar or nuclear – which way to go? Dr Hermann Scheer is well qualified to address this question. He is a physicist, a member of the German Bundestag (Parliament), President of EUROSTAR (the European Association for Renewable Energy) and General Chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy. In his latest book, he uses his scientific expertise and political acumen to meticulously assemble data and arguments in favour of the rapid progressive replacement of nuclear and fossil fuels with non-polluting, renewable energy sources.

The 2007 Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates a 95% probability that global warming is attributable to human activities, through land clearing and the profligate combustion of fossil fuels, leading to an unprecedently rapid increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHGs), specifically carbon dioxide. We are now approaching a dangerous tipping point, at which the Earth is giving off more GHGs than it absorbs, with potentially catastrophic consequences for climate change and human survival and wellbeing.

Scheer’s book gives some disturbing figures on why CO2 levels continue to increase. In 1990, according to the International Energy Agency, global consumption of fossil energy resources was 5.63 billion metric ‘tons of oil equivalent (toe)’, rising by 44 per cent, to 8.13 toe in 2002, despite ten international conferences on the politics of climate protection. In contrast, the share of renewable energy rose by 33 per cent, from 1.04 to 1.38 toe over the same period. Scheer maintains that this disparity is fostered by government annual subsidies, which amount to US $ 244 billion for fossil and nuclear fuels, compared to $ 9 billion for renewable energy – a mere 3.7 per cent of the total. Not captured by these statistical calculations are the subsidies in the form of tax exemptions worldwide for aircraft and ship fuels, amounting to some $ 250 billion, and development funds for atomic energy of around $ 1 trillion. Nuclear and fossil fuel subsidies constitute the greatest case of corporate welfare in world economic history.

The potential for harnessing solar currency directly and indirectly is almost limitless, since the sun and its derivatives (wind, waves, water and biomass) ‘deliver’ daily to the Earth 15,000 times more energy than is generated by fossil and nuclear fission energy combined. Scheer has constructed a table for ‘100 per cent scenarios’ for energy supply with renewable energy for Western Europe, the United States and Japan by mid-century, using a combination of efficiency standards, tax policies, subsidies, building standards and obligatory renewable energy technologies, direct and indirect. Surprisingly, he does not specifically refer to the German government report on concentrated solar power (CSP), whereby covering just 0.5% of the Earth’s hot deserts with mirrors focused on conventional steam turbines could provide for the world’s entire electricity needs, including desalination plants and air conditioning for nearby cities, at a cost comparable to oil combustion.

Scheer argues that nuclear power cannot make a sustainable contribution to energy autonomy, on several grounds: uranium deposits at present rates of usage will only last for 60 years; nuclear reactors’ enormous water needs compete with the demand for water from a growing world population; increased risk vulnerability from nuclear warfare and terrorism; the wrong energy business plan: since investment in nuclear power plants is especially capital-intensive, it clashes with liberalisation of electricity markets and their short-term amortisation periods; creeping radioactive contamination, with no long-term plans for disposal of radioactive wastes or for energy-intensive plant decommissioning. Nor is nuclear fusion the answer: a European Union Commission calculates that electricity costs from nuclear fusion would be seven times greater than nuclear fission, while photovoltaic electricity can draw level with present costs of fossil fuel generation.

In a section entitled blockades to action, Scheer’s book refers to the ‘unbroken power of one-dimensional thinking’ which inhibits a global transition from non-renewable fossil and nuclear energy (which carry devastating environmental consequences) to renewable, non- polluting energy sources. The most important step should be to reclaim mental autonomy in the energy question, which means facing reality and ending the self-deception that the traditional way of supplying energy has any kind of sustainable future or can be made to have one.

Energy Autonomy is engagingly written, well referenced, with informative tables and a good index. It should be read by all who are professionally or personally concerned with climate change and an energy future for our planet. Many may see the prospect of a ‘100 per cent renewable energy future’ as utopian, with little chance of practical application. Similar views were expressed during the fossil energy industrial transition, until steam engines and, later, internal combustion engines transformed the landscapes and lifestyles of human society.

Transition to a renewable energy future will require political, economic, social and lifestyle adaptations which will be no less radical than those associated with the human transition to agriculture 400 generations ago and to the industrial revolution 10 generations ago. Failure to make this new sustainable transition would bode ill for our children and grandchildren.