TRANSCRIPT OF OTT INTERVIEW
Alex Smith: On the other side of the Atlantic, it seems like a different planet. Politicians, the media, and the broad public long ago accepted the science of climate change. Under the stress of depending on imported energy, Germany and Denmark decided to make the switch to renewables.
But in Germany, progressive parties like the Greens were elected. They didn't want to rely on big corporate power either. So Germany set a severe target: to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to just 40 percent of their 1990 levels by 2020. Germany is ahead of schedule. In a period during the summer of 2012, they were able to power their entire electrical needs from renewables alone - in the most highly industrialized nation in Europe.
Daphne Wysham, long-time host of Earthbeat Radio, is now with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. She travelled to Germany and Denmark last summer to discover how this renewable energy renaissance happened. Here Daphne speaks with Hermann Ott. He's a lawyer with the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy - but on leave, while he sits as a Member of the German Federal Parliament for the Green Party.
Daphne Wysham: What is the strategy for the Green Party, first of all, in terms of advancing the energy revolution? Is there a focus on decentralized renewables versus large-scale centralized approach, with maybe more offshore wind - and how do you see that playing out in the coming years.
Hermann Ott: Actually, if you look at it, even wind power, 70% of that is in the hands of private individuals, and solar of course most of it. And that was.. that's based on the.. especially like the Internet. I mean the Internet's function was to be indestructible, to be, well to guard against nuclear strikes. So it was kind of set up not as a hierarchical network, but interconnected.
In our opinion, and that's also part of the Green philosophy, first of all it should be in the hands of the people, they should profit from it. Second, it's much more safe, if you've got large companies doing it. And of course, there is also a slight sort of anti-business route in there. So empower the people and not more profit to the companies.
The result is for example the Renewable Energy Law, which put that into concrete legal form, and which has led to revolution. I mean if you at the landscape in Germany, in many parts you see windmills everywhere. And solar is just coming in the same way.
Nobody expected it that fast, actually. Especially regarding wind power, and that also led to the fact that people have less resistance. I mean if you are part of it, well it may be a nuisance, but at least it's a willing [unknown word]. That's a side effect which was not intended but it's of course very valuable.
And we conceive for the future a mix. There will be some large hydro, some large offshore, probably some large solar, concentrated solar power in Southern Europe or Northern Africa. But as we perceive it, this will not be the backbone. It will be a factor, but it will be decentralized.
But as you know very well, sometimes plans do not develop the way it was set out before. So we don't know really, but that's our idea. We doubt that the large concentrated solar power stations actually bring the results that they are expected. We doubt that biomass can be used in the quantity that some studies presuppose.
Daphne: In terms of the concentrated solar, and I've heard about some of these plans for the North of Africa that suggest that one power plant in Morocco could all of Europe's energy needs or something.
Ott: Well not all. Fifty percent.
Daphne: Do you doubt that that is possible? Or do you just feel that is not desirable?
Ott: It depends. The devil is in the details. On the one hand, it can be made into a tool that fosters cooperation between Europe and Africa, where local people profit from it, and where actually... in terms of jobs, but also in terms of energy.
But it could also easily be turned into a colonialist tool to exploit our poor people in Africa. That is the other side of the coin. The devil lies in the details.
We would of course like it to be an instrument for cooperation and benefit for the people in Africa but it can easily turn into the contrary. So in general our line is that we are not opposing it, but we are not actively fostering it, supporting it. Our main idea for future energy - electricity production - is decentralized power, from wind, solar, some biomass, not too much actually, because there's a competition with food.
But what the main challenge is of course to get a grid, a fit for this kind of electricity production and to provide the storage. It's going very fast, but if I am allowed this Party politics remark, this government is not doing enough to increase the ability of the grid to cope with twenty five percent renewables, and on storage it's not doing anything.
Daphne: It they were to do more would it be in the form of let's say a smart grid, or what are you proposing that they do in terms of the grid?
Ott: Well that's certainly part of it. But we don't only need smart grids, we need some kind of extension - not as much as industry normally purports. There's a study that claims that we need three thousand five hundred kilometers new high voltage lines. But that supposes of course, that all the renewable energy is produced in the north with wind power, offshore and onshore, and it's consumed in the south. So you need lots of new lines.
But the new Green-Red government in Baden-Wurttemberg has made it clear that they are now heading towards a sizeable amount of renewables themselves. And Bavaria is following, which is government by a conservative government. So there will be extensive renewables also, electricity production in the south of Germany.
Daphne: Did the Green Party play a pivotal role in all of this, or is it really just something that has become so accepted by the general population that the notion that we need to advance renewable energy within Germany. Is it being pushed actively by the Greens, or is it being....
Ott: Well we are mainly connected with the success of renewables. That has historical reasons, and especially the Renewable Energy Law from 1998/1999 under a Red-Green coalition. That led to the boost in renewables we have now. And we are also the political force that actively fights against cutting back the regulations that favor renewable energy.
But it's also part of the wider society of course. Sometimes I think that is exactly the reason it will succeed. Because people don't want nuclear, I mean after Fukushima around 80% of the Germans were against [nuclear power]. Before it was 60 [%] not it would probably be back to 65 [%] or something. But the deep-rooted conviction that nuclear energy is bad, really bad.
And for alternatives, you can't turn to fossils because they foster climate change. So there is only one solution and that is renewables.
Sometimes I think it is a small part of the population that is actually needed only to the atmosphere within a society. You have a bad example now in the U.S. with the Tea Party, which is a relatively small faction of the Republican Party, but is dominating discussion, so that it has hegemony in a way. I mean everybody has to relate to it.
And I mean the positive example is actually the relatively small part of the population that in the '70's started doubting nuclear energy, fighting against it, developing alternatives. And there was real freaks that went out into the countryside and lived on their own electricity. They wanted to be autonomous. This made it possible have a climate, atmosphere in our society which is very, very pro-renewables, and that's why I think we will succeed.
Daphne: So in terms of the feed-in tariff, do you feel that that was pivotal in success, of getting renewables to take off in Germany?
Ott: Absolutely. One of the most the most genius creations in legal history that I know. Because it doesn't take state subsidies. It's consumers in the end paying themselves, and it provides prime access to the grid. The grid owner is required to allow renewable energy. And it provides for a long-term perspective, investment security, because you know that for the next twenty years you get that return on your investment, and that was it, in the end.
Daphne: And it seems that quite a few countries are following your lead. It looks like Japan might be considering a feed-in tariff for renewables? And India?
Ott: Well, there's almost fifty countries, but most of them actually have a softer model which has got a cap on the amount of money that is actually... in Spain I think it was one billion [Euros]. In China, I know a guy who was in China and he said: Our renewable energy law made it up to the top of the Politburo but then was stopped there because they were afraid it would get out of hand. They wanted to have it under their control. So they have got a softer version but all-in-all I think its 50 countries now have followed it, because it actually empowers the people. And it unleashes an investment.
But if you look at the growth rate, in terms of gig watt hours, you couldn't actually build that in conventional power. They can do it in China because they don't have any environmental protection procedural rules that you have to follow. But you couldn't do it in one of our countries. So it's actually a very, very active tool in increasing electricity production.
It's absolutely clear that our present and our predicted energy supply cannot come from renewables, and it should not come from renewables.
Daphne: Cannot come from renewables?
Ott: No, and it should not. Because we kind of use any inch of the Earth's surface to produce some kind of energy, if you look at the projections. And on of the results of our working group in our Parliamentary Commission is that the rebound effect is extremely strong.
Daphne: Explain what you mean by that.
Ott: The rebound is the phenomenon that if you have an increase in efficiency, in cars or lamps or whatever, much of the increase is eaten up again by the changed behavior of the people. So you let the light burn longer, or you drive more kilometers. Or you save money by insulating your home, and spend it on a tour to China, or to Europe for that matter. Actually the number called "backfire" where the emissions after the efficiency increases are higher than before.
That's why saving energy and using energy more efficiently is prime. So we have to look at those together. I mean one is renewable energy, we need that. And it won't be too long that all the energy will be renewables, we're sure.
But we also need to make sure that we decrease the amount of energy that we use. At the Wuppertal Institute where I used to work, we had this rule of thumb: 'down to one third.' So if we go down to one third of the present energy consumption and produce that with renewable energy.
Then it will be fine, and there will be no competition between energy production and food production, for example, which could actually turn into a major problem in the future. So renewables is great, but at the same time we need to reduce our consumption of energy."
Alex Smith: That was Hermann Ott, a Member of the German Federal Parliament for the Green Party. He was interviewed in Berlin, during the summer of 2012 by Daphne Wysham from the Institute of Policy Studies. My thanks to Daphne for sharing this valuable insight into the way it could be, even in North America, with Radio Ecoshock listeners.