chapter
14 Pages

Introduction: Energy change: The ultimate challenge

These days, the whole world talks of renewable energy, as happily as it does about good weather. Scarcely anyone continues to deny that the future for mankind’s power supply lies in renewable energy. For a long time this idea was regarded as fantasy. This change in perception goes back only a few years. In May 2002, the

United Nations (UN) invited me to join a small and select group of people at a meeting in their New York headquarters, to help clear up a problem which had occurred to Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the UN. The UN was in the last stage of its preparations for the World Summit on Sustainable Development which was subsequently held that August in Johannesburg. But in the draft for the final declaration, drawn up during several preparatory conferences, there was not a single mention of the key role played by renewable energy for the sustainable development of world civilization. It was our task to suggest formulations to fill this gap. The episode shows just how deep and widespread ignorance of renewable energy still remained at the beginning of the 21st century. The current global attention being paid to renewable energy arose outside

mainstream political, economic and media discussions on energy. These remain ensnared in a global view of power supply dominated by nuclear and fossil fuels. In the 1990s, the few pioneers of a ‘solar age’, which relies neither on nuclear nor fossil energy, still came up against deep-seated psychological, and enormous practical, barriers. Today these appear to have been overcome, although more in words than in thoughts and deeds. Wholehearted declarations from governments and power companies which engender the impression of absolute commitment to sustainable energies blur the view for the practical priorities. Although now power companies too are investing in renewable energy, their focus remains first and foremost on conventional energy sources – where possible right down to the last drop of oil, the final ton of coal or uranium and the last remaining cubic metre of gas. These are of greater value to power companies, for wind and solar radiation cannot themselves be sold as resources. Resistance to renewable energy has given way to a strategy of monopolization and delay, a strategy which demands that the increasingly urgent transition to

renewable energy be introduced only in cautious and thereby often questionable stages. Even so, in the meantime it is universally recognized that the future of power

supply must lie in renewable energy. The many dangers and limits associated with the extraction and production of nuclear and fossil fuels have become manifest. For this reason alone, renewable energy can no longer be ignored, particularly in view of its impressive growth rate. Between 2006 and 2008 alone, global annual investment in renewable energy doubled from US$63 billion to US$120 billion. The worldwide installed capacity of wind power plants grew from 74,000 to 135,000 megawatts between 2006 and 2009, and that of photovoltaic plants connected to networks from 5,100 to 19,000 megawatts. Cracks in a world view based on nuclear and fossil energy began to appear with the admission that renewable energy offers the potential for global application. Its psychological strength derives from the realistic hope it offers of safe and secure energy supplies over the long-term. Thus, renewable energy represents a superior social value over nuclear and fossil energy. This is the crux of the matter when it comes to energy considerations. Those who identify renewable energy not only as a supplement to current

energy supplies, but also a tangible, comprehensive alternative, can hardly continue to deny this. Given a real choice, most people will opt for renewables over nuclear and fossil energy. Germany is the practical example of this. After the German government’s Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) came into effect in 2000, and despite continued resistance, by 2009, the share played by renewables in generating electricity had grown from 4.5 per cent to 17 per cent, and in overall energy supply from 3 per cent to 10 per cent. People’s trust in the potential offered by renewable energy grew parallel to this development and with it the hope and expectation of being able to rely completely on renewable energy in the near future. Surveys indicate that 90 per cent of Germans favour the further, extensive exploitation of renewable energy – with 75 per cent wishing to see this in their local regions – and they are even prepared to accept higher energy costs to make this possible. Fewer than 10 per cent favour the building of new nuclear or coal-fired power plants.1