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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. This expense, for example, is smaller than the sum every consumer has to pay for the future atomic waste-management. Public acceptance for the feed-in-law is very high because consumers, in general, acknowledge that renewables have to be promoted to put an end to the perverse situation that energies that are harmful to human health and the natural environment are cheaper than those that help avoid these damages.

About costs and prices and the current energy system
The level of the German electricity rates is determined by the supply monopolies of the few big suppliers of conventional power--they are the major profiteers. This leads to the inherent flaw in Khosla's concept: All he is talking about is technology and its costs as if these costs would play the dominant role when energy suppliers all over the world define their prices. It is naive to equate costs with prices and to assume that the conventional energy sector is offering only cost-covering prices.

The same goes for huge concentrated solar power (also known as CSP or solar thermal) plants in the North African desert, proposed to supply Western Europe with energy. The ambition behind such strategies is to keep the existing supply monopolies in the hands of a few big international power players and out of the reach of the democratic control of our societies and the market. That is why we are faced with a green washing of black energies. Even if the costs for this kind of power generation were lower than for conventional energies, the established energy system would see to it that there would be no lower prices but rather higher profits. That is why off-grid or island-supply solutions are that attractive. They avoid dependence on energy-supply companies and allow for energy autonomy.

Khosla's argumentation becomes even more questionable when taking into account the needs of the developing countries. Khosla is frequently addressing the problems of India and China, but he seems completely unaware of several World Bank studies showing that a decentralized energy supply is desirable for those developing countries that have until now no national grid. Most of them are unable (and will most likely be so in the future) to shoulder the expenses for a grid connecting the 2 billion people worldwide still living without access to electricity. Thinking that the necessary seminal change in the current world energy system could be achieved within the existing energy structures is a myth that some still seem to adhere to.

No change within the existing world energy system
The current energy debate is not only about climate change and CO2. The problem lies deeper: The conventional world energy system would not be faultless if climate change was not looming at the horizon. On the contrary, there are a host of unsolved problems, inequalities und injustices that are waiting to be tackled: atomic waste; reactor accidents; the large amounts of foreign currency spent on importation--especially hard to afford for developing countries; the damages to the environment and to human health; the long energy chains from the places of mining and extraction to the customers that result in huge energy losses; the increasing need to protect the globalized power lines against attacks; and the high water consumption for mining, extracting and for the cooling of steam powered nuclear plants.

These problems cannot be solved with the approach Khosla favors because it aims at conserving the existing conventional energy structures. Khosla's approach is part of the problem--not the solution.