A fight over the future of solar

German parliamentarian Herman Scheer responds to criticisms from venture capitalist Vinod Khosla about how best to develop renewable energy sources.

Editor's note: Earlier this year, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla and Herman Scheer, a member of Germany's parliament, hotly debated the merits of different solar technologies at a forum at Pacific Gas and Electric. Although the two agreed on many points, the debate also highlighted one of the more interesting aspects of the so-called clean-tech market: Opinions vary widely on which technologies will and will not help the world get off a petroleum diet. (For the record, Khosla disparaged wind power and solar panels as uneconomical and touted solar thermal power plants. Scheer pointed out cracks in the solar thermal argument, noting that it works only in a few places, and highlighted Germany's success with solar panels. These points have cropped up in other debates on the technologies.)

Khosla wrote a response to Scheer and included a wide-ranging analysis of other energy issues. Scheer has now written his reply.

My new book, Energy Autonomy has been one of the topics of the panel discussion with Vinod Khosla and Michael Peevey in February in San Francisco.

During this discussion, Khosla did not respond to the book and its theses. That was understandable at that time. He might not have had enough time to read the book beforehand. But what really surprises me is that he now discusses my opinions and concepts at length, obviously without having read a single line since. His comments thus are a little spooky to me.

Khosla is not only misquoting some of my contributions during the panel--violating one of the basic principles of scientific discourse. He is voicing opinions and assumptions that are often lacking any statistical or scientific basis. They can be refuted easily, and I will try to do so with some of them.

He is aiming at condemning all kinds of renewable energy except solar thermal technologies. (He informs us that he financially supports CSP technologies.) In his text, hardly any stereotype concerning other renewables is left out. He calls his approach "pragmatic" whereas mine is labeled somewhat illusionary and "idealistic" in a bad sense.

Nuclear vs. renewables--employing a double standard
Reality looks different: The approaches I argued for have resulted in a total of 60,000 MW installed capacity of renewable energy in the electricity sector during the last years, alone 25,000 MW thereof in Germany. The approach Khosla is supporting led only to 400 MW of installed concentrated solar power in California during the beginning of the 1980s. The figures did not rise since. It amazes me that he does not ask himself why the concept that I advocate has developed dynamically, although it is supposed to be more expensive than the technologies he is supporting. Surely he must ask himself why his approach did not experience a breakthrough yet. Is that realism?

Surely (Khosla) must ask himself why his approach did not experience a breakthrough yet. Is that realism?

Khosla is obviously employing a double standard when ascribing the success of my concept to "huge subsidies" and to spending "taxpayers' money irrespective of the economics" and at the same time endorsing nuclear energy. The past 50 years have clearly proven that nuclear technology is a veritable tomb for R&D subsidies, investor capital and taxpayers' money. From the 1950s to 1973, the OECD countries spent over $150 billion (in current prices) on R&D in nuclear energy--but practically nothing, by contrast, on renewable energy. Between 1974 (when the International Energy Agency started collecting data) and 1992, it was again $168 billion--for renewable energy, by contrast, the figure came to just $22 billion. The EU's opulent promotion of nuclear energy is not even included in this count, and the French figures remain secret to this day. Total subsidization worldwide comes to at least $1 trillion if we include the former Soviet Union, India and China. For renewable energy, by contrast, subsidies amount to $40 billion at most over the last 30 years, including market introduction programs. Stating that there has been a "lack of R&D into nuclear energy technology" appears quite ridiculous.

But it is not only direct financial aid that counts. Nuclear energies are privileged in many other ways. Exemption from liability in case of reactor accidents because no insurance company would want to back that risk is but one example. It is unfair and dishonest to on the one hand accept market-adverse preferential treatment for atomic energy and on the other deny these financial and political privileges to renewable energies, and have them compete with the heavily funded nuclear industries on an unequal footing. Privileging nuclear energy financially and politically should come to an end--not much has been achieved compared to the large sums that have been invested to promote this energy source. Khosla's question, instead of speaking up for nuclear, should rather read: How many millions of tons of carbon emissions do we have because renewable energy has not been promoted?

The German renewable energy feed-in-law
It is downright wrong, and unveils Khosla's lack of familiarity with this policy, to state that the success of the German renewable energy feed-in-law--25.000 MW since 2000--could only have been achieved by employing taxpayers' money. The approximately $20 plus per household per year are paid by the customers and do not burden the national budget.

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