Solar Economy

The Solar Economy

by Hermann Scheer

A review by Simon Roberts [Source]

"Sustainable energy" is very much in vogue to cover more than just renewable energy technologies. It is about reducing CO2 emissions to mitigate the increasingly dire effects of climate change, and can include the use of resources that will be depleted but not for a very long time.

"Sustainability" in its broader application, though, has a wider meaning. In simple terms it is often thought of as the "triple bottom lines" of social and environmental alongside the traditional financial considerations. Sustainable development is about considering and balancing these, almost orthogonal, concepts as best as possible within current circumstances, though striving to improve for the future.

As physicists and engineers in pursuit of our interests and projects, the financial bottom line can be frustrating but we're always aware that this is the "real world". Also we're increasingly taking on board environmental consequences, never more so than in the containment of radioactive waste from nuclear power. But the social bit? Isn't that for the politicians and society to decide and provide the leadership? (...well grounded on sound technical information, of course.)

Hermann Scheer's book isn't about sustainability as such but I suggest it offers a very powerful argument connecting energy technologies and sustainability from a different direction.

Scheer uses "solar" to cover not only electricity from photovoltaics and heating but hydro, wind and wave. He includes materials of plant origin, produced from sunlight via photosynthesis to emphasise their solar origin. (Tidal-based power generation systems depend on the moon's motion, not the sun, but I think Scheer would include these within his solar label.)

The title of his book, "The solar economy", puts all these solar resources at the heart of thinking and ultimately action. His message is very simple in essence: locally or regionally produced solar energy, foodstuffs and solar resources should be consumed and marketed in preference to otherwise equivalent products. (This is the sixth of seven propositions he puts forward.)

Let's consider some of the evidence Scheer presents. By 1999, Germany had installed around 3500 MW of wind turbine capacity and Denmark 1560 MW, whereas France had installed only 19 MW and Ireland 73 MW - although the Altantic coastline endows France and Ireland with many more suitable sites.

The difference is not down to geography but to the favourable climate for wind turbine operators in Denmark and Germany provided by the "electricity feed-in laws" that guarantee grid access and minimum prices. As a German MP, Scheer was the architect behind getting this legislation through; a doer as well as a visionary. The point here is that the difference in wind turbine capacity owes more to politics and culture.

He critically examines the evolution and impact of our current energy companies. "Like a spider, the fossil resource industry has been spinning its web over more and more sectors of the economy. Each strand of this web is a supply chain, with crosslinks composed of other directly connected industries." Out of the 50 largest European companies, 17 are in part or wholly conventional suppliers of energy and raw materials, or part of the chemicals industry.

Scheer develops his argument around the number of steps in the supply chains of various energy technologies, highlighting many hidden costs. "An examination of the entire supply chain for fossil fuel energy demonstrates that its claim to be more economical is a myth. In theory, renewable energy sources have an economic advantage because of their much shorter supply chains. This can be exploited if the atomic and fossil fuel energy suppliers are divested of their numerous state privileges."

The most sensitive question humanity faces is whether the global economy produces enough to go around. If our economy continues to be based on limited, polluting resources and ever more concentrated global business structures, then there will not be enough for all. Resource reserves are in truth the flashpoints for ever more conflicts. Scheer's seventh proposition is that, "Only a solar global economy can satisfy the material needs of all mankind and grant us the freedom to re-establish our social and democratic ideals."

Scheer enables us to think big and "sustainable", not in a fluffy way but one that will appeal to many phyicist's: systemic thinking based on some fundamental physical concepts argued with a wealth of statistics.

Here are a couple of links on the web to give a taste.

If you find these links interesting, maybe you'll be tempted to read "The solar economy" for the full story.