A renewable future? Leadership required for new energy revolution

The change to renewable energy will require nothing less than a global economic revolution, with benefits for the environment, the economy and global equality. Hermann Scheer argues that more than anything else, the world requires leadership and courage, because the argument is already won.

The report released earlier this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that the global climate is being altered and that this change is man-made. The Stern Report in turn calculated that the present system of energy use already places undue stress on the global economy. The main conclusion of the report was that the investment needed to avoid negative climate effects is less than the cost needed of compensating for it.

The truth of the global energy discussion is this – our world is at a turning point. We are about to cross the line of the present global energy system, with a number of stresses inherent in the system.

Global liquid oil and the natural gas resources – which account for 60% of the present commercial energy supplies – are running out. Proposals to extend the lifetime of the fossil energy system by using so-called non conventional fossil energies (such as oil sands and tar shales) will lead to tremendous price hikes and increased harm to the environment.

All of this means that the time is overdue for a general shift towards renewable energy. This is the fundamental challenge of our century. There is no time for further postponements. Every delay is officially motivated by the false argument that the potential of renewable energy is not large enough to substitute the fossil and atomic energy supply and to meet the increasing energy demands. However the opposite is true. Cheap fossil fuel reserves and their ability to supply our needs are decreasing. On the other hand global energy demand is set to rise. Only by tapping our abundant renewable energy resources can we prevent a crossing of these two curves of demand and supply during the coming decades. If widespread renewable energy is not introduced in time, the dangers of global economic crisis and energy conflicts will be severe.


Because energy is a basic need of modern life, we can’t leave decisions concerning the future of our energy supply to calculations based solely on current energy costs and the international energy market. The costs of finite conventional energies will go up. In contrast, renewable energy costs will go down, because they consist almost exclusively – except for biomass – of technology costs, which usually decline in the course of technological progress and mass production. The promotion of renewable energy is not an economic burden, indeed it is a unique new economic opportunity.

Conventional fossil and nuclear energies have multiple negative macroeconomic side effects – such as the increasing need to protect globalized pipelines against attacks; the high water consumption for mining, extracting and heating and cooling power stations; the large amounts of foreign currency spent on importing fuel, and the damage it causes to the environment and to human health. In contrast, renewable energy sources have many benefits, because they help to avoid all these negative effects. The practical challenge lies in the creation of policies for the transformation of these benefits into microeconomic incentives for application.

It is only with renewable energy that we will we be able to attain true energy efficiency. In the global chain of conventional energy from the mines and wells to the customers – sometimes over distances of more than 20,000 miles – there are large energy losses. With short energy chains based on the use of indigenous renewable resources, these energy losses can be reduced radically. The central responsibility of research and development should therefore be to make short energy chains feasible. Absolute priority should be given to new types of electricity storage technologies, not just hydrogen.


The nuclear option remains a poor choice. On current calculations the usable uranium reserves will be exhausted within five decades (based on the current number of nuclear power plants). Stretching the fission material by reprocessing and using fast breeder reactors leads to incalculable additional costs and risks. In addition, the peaceful use of atomic energy increasingly leads to the global proliferation of nuclear weapons – something which must be avoided. Finally, it is fundamentally irresponsible to leave more than 10,000 years of nuclear waste management to future generations. What political system can be kept stable for thousands of years? It is not the come-back of nuclear energy that should be considered, but the immediate acceleration of renewable energy.

Another often-discussed solution is nuclear fusion, but in reality this is a non-option. No supporter of atomic fusion ever speaks about the costs, which will be at least three times higher than those for atomic fission. They ignore the prognosis of M.L. Lidsky, the former head of the Plasma Fusion Center of MIT, that ‘if the fusion programme produces a reactor, no one will want to have it.’ Moreover, they ignore the fact that there is no need for another energy option if we take advantage of the solar potential. The fusion route is highly speculative, renewable energy is real.


Yet despite this situation conventional energies remain privileged; supported by large amounts of public money for research and development and military protection of the supply chain; and by a total of US$300 billion in subsidies per year. In contrast to this, renewable energy has been largely unsupported. Less than $20 billion of tax-payers’ money has been spent in the last 30 years to promote renewable energy. While there exist several intergovernmental institutions for the promotion of atomic energy (the IAEA, EURATOM) on the international level there is not a single one for renewable energy. The time has come to end this double-standard.

Governments and international institutions have been aware of the limits of conventional energies and their damaging consequences for 30 years now. Indeed, it has been common knowledge since the oil-crisis in the 1970s, the Global 2000-Report of the Carter Administration in 1981, the UN Environment conference in 1982, the Rio Conference in 1992 and the Johannesburg Conference in 2002. But they have avoided dealing with the central point – the replacement of non-renewable fuels by renewable energy. Governments and institutions worked on the assumption that global problems would require common global actions. They tried to develop a global consensus for action. But consensus always means that the slowest move determines the speed of the entire process. The result was ‘talking globally, postponing nationally’. Yet it is a contradiction in itself to move quickly and have consensus at the same time. The consensus principle leads to a practical paralysis. The remarkable achievements of renewable energy cannot hide the fact that the global fossil energy consumption is increasing faster than the introduction of renewables. This means that the world is continuing to run into the fossil energy trap and into ever increasing energy dependency.


When reviewing the state of the global energy supply, I can therefore identify a good news and a bad news story. The bad news is, oil reserves are running out. The good news is, oil reserves are running out. In one of his bright moments, John Rockefeller, the first and most famous oil-tycoon in history, defined oil as ‘tears of the devil’. This prophecy has turned into reality. The oncoming shortage of oil is good news, because we are faced with another time limit. The biosphere – including humankind – is already overstressed. We cannot be allowed to burn up all the known reserves of fossil fuels. Thus, we are in a race against time. In the next few decades we need to change the world energy basis – from polluting and finite to solely clean and sustainable energies. This poses a unique chance for research and development, new technologies and the building materials industries that have until now only played a minor part in the energy business. Now is the time to come forward with creative ideas and adequate solutions.

The past has shown that this change cannot be achieved within the existing structures and on the shoulders of the international energy system’s protagonists. Both the Stern Report and the IPCC Report fell short, due to a lack of courage, of demonstrating that the only adequate answer consists in a radical shift to renewable energy. The conventional energy economy as a whole is not neutral regarding different energy options.

The conventional energy system is tailored to the chosen energy sources, following their entire energy flow – from their places of mining or extraction to the places of energy consumption. One has in fact only one choice – that is to stick to the specific energy source around which the system has developed. This choice determines if mining or extraction technologies are necessary, which kind of infrastructure for the transportation of primary energy must be employed, what conversion technologies and what kind of distribution is needed.

For decades, a total of more than $400 billion per year went into the existing world energy system. It created long energy chains from a few giant oil fields in a handful of countries to billions of customers worldwide. This chain can only be organized by multinational corporations who in turn become imprisoned by their own chain. It is impossible to come to a specific point in time, when all existing investments get their pay-back simultaneously. That is why the multinational corporations tend to continue their business as long as possible. Although they know that the time to turn to renewable energies has come, they postpone this shift because renewables must be handled in a very different way.

They are inexhaustible, available in all regions of the world, and generate no emissions or waste. There will be a shift from commercial to non-commercial primary energy sources and from a few large-scale power plants to many small and medium-sized ones. This implies a change in ownership structures, from a few owners to many. If the shift is implemented everywhere, there will be more equality and less poverty in the world. Renewables represent a new paradigm that completely overturns traditional thinking about energy, causing it to be met with opposition from conservative energy experts.

New groupings will form as old alliances dissolve; as the fossil industrial web unravels, so too will the power structure it sustains. There are no economic factors holding back this development; only the lack of imagination and opposition on the part of established industries. Some existing giants will retain their size; some small PV and wind turbine manufacturers will grow to the proportions of today’s car manufacturers. There will be a rash of new specialist biotech enterprises.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, new mass-market technologies have been bringing about economic upheavals – but none compare with the dissolution of the fossil resource base and its global supply chains.

A solar resource base is no impediment to consolidation among manufacturers of solar technologies, but it does rescind the globalization imperative currently driving the resource industry. The transition to a solar resource base will loosen the fossil clamps on the global economy. It also signifies a fundamental turning point in economic history: away from the inexorable trend towards an ever-decreasing pool of mega-corporations, and towards sustainable smaller and medium-sized business forms, which will be and must remain embedded within a regional context, and whose business models may even prove more effective than those of large structures. This is the most comprehensive and most significant structural change in the history of the global economy, and thus also the most controversial.

Albert Einstein said that a problem cannot be solved using the methods that produced it. Moving towards renewable energy will make these other methods necessary.


Dr Hermann Scheer is a Member of the German Parliament and President of Eurosolar
e-mail: hermann.scheer.ma03@bundestag.de

Hermann Scheer’s new book, Energy Autonomy, was recently published by Earthscan. See www.earthscan.co.uk for futher details

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