Book Review: The Solar Economy by Hermann Scheer
German MP and Solar Champion Hermann Scheer wrote this book about 10 years ago and it has been available in English for about 7 years, but apart from a few historical references, there is little out of date about this book. Scheer was responsible for introducing feed-in legislation in Germany which has been responsible for a huge boost in the uptake of renewables and the supporting renewables industry.
The book can be a bit difficult to read, partly due to a slightly clunky style and partly due to Scheer’s tendency to go off on a rant about something he feels strongly about in the middle of a well argued point. But his main arguments are:
1. There is a prevailing myth that non-renewable sources of energy will support us for ever and that renewable sources cannot. The earth receives 15,000 times as much solar energy as man uses in any year, so it is up to our ingenuity to capture and use as much of this as we need.
2. International agreements such as the Kyoto agreement are a dangerous distraction as they encourage individual nations to delay action, and the compromises inherent in such an agreement leads to the lowest common denominator being adopted rather than a race to see who can do best.
3. The current energy infrastructure is designed to take a number of highly concentrated forms of energy and distributing them to a diffuse number of users. Renewable energy is diffuse and the most efficient way of using it is directly at source (eg a house using the electricity generated on its roof). This requires a completely different distribution system and localised storage systems.
4. As a result of this mismatch, energy statistics are flawed as they omit existing autonomous renewable energy systems (eg domestic solar hot water systems, wood burning stoves, solar powered calculators, solar powered road signs etc) and passive renewable energy use, such as passive solar gain of housing and natural daylighting.
5. The fossil (and nuclear) fuel industries are over-subsidised and are given near monopoly control over some markets. These vested interests must be confronted and routed out before solar can thrive. Existing energy companies should bear the societal costs of their industry.
6. Solar resources (biomaterials, biofuels) can and should replace their oil-based equivalents without disrupting food supplies. Given the recent outcry over food prices and the effect on them of biofuel production, this is one of the few places in the book where it showed its age.
So, instead of the big centralised distribution systems (which are becoming global in many cases), Scheer proposes a localised system of distribution grids, owned by local and regional authorities (Scheer believes that privatisation should only occur where competition is possible). Feed-In Legislation would guarantee grid access for small scale generators, breaking up the dominance of big energy companies. He also proposes the grid operators could also provide other solar resources including biofuels and biochemicals, but I felt that this might be where his politics overstepped his logic – there is no practical reason why there shouldn’t be competition in the supply and distribution of vehicle fuel and solid fuels.
It was very appropriate to be reading this book on various train trips in Belgium where I could see the really positive effect of a feed-in tariff. As I said before it can be a bit clunky and a bit ranty in places, but this is still a very stimulating and thought provoking read from one of the true champions of renewable energy.