“It is particularly ironic that the battle to save the world's remaining healthy ecosystems will be won or lost not in tropical forests or coral reefs that are threatened but on the streets of the most unnatural landscapes on the planet.”- Worldwatch Institute. 2007

Friday, 17 September 2010

14th September - Talking with Werner about energy and Artefact

(Energy)’…it’s a civil sector question not a technical issue for a handful of engineers.’

Artefact is Germany’s first Infotainment park on renewable energy. It has a guest house the foundation of which is insulated with bottles from Flensburg Brewery and a number of other buildings and demonstration modules based on solar and wind power. They run seminars for schools groups and an adult education programme with some thousands of participants from 50 countries a year from development organisations, architects, community politicians, and companies. They’ve had about 250,000 visitors in the last two decades. It seems to be almost singlehandley run by Werner with a small team including a couple of volunteers and, at the moment, an intern called Paloma who has an interest in different crops for biomass.

Werner tells me he started out his career in education in developing countries, including 5-6 years in West Africa. His experiences there made him realize that although they had local issues to address the greatest problems, for example the effects of climate change, were mainly the product of rich countries consuming energy and creating poverty by controlling markets for their own benefits. And so he was driven to return home, to deal with the issues there, ‘to be a development worker in my country’.

He started then to look for local solutions – for building materials that didn’t need transporting from far away, that created jobs locally and that could be easily recycled, for ways to minimize energy use and also to see how energy could be produced locally. People laughed back then, and said, ‘You have no choice but to go with coal and nuclear because you have no sun in winter, no wind in summer, and you still need to produce heat’. But they tried and have proved that combination of these two technologies combined with biomass co-generation works well not just for a centre such as Artefact but also for the region.

Nowadays he says the farmers don’t come to Artefact to look at the demonstration models. They’re still laughing but now because they have much larger versions of their own. 15-20 years ago many of them were on the verge of selling up – they couldn’t make a living on milk and wheat alone but now most of them have a turbine and a PV array, and in the last five years more and more have biogas plants. The region of Schleswig-Holstein produces enough electricity over the year to cover it’s own needs, feeding into the grid in winter and drawing some out in winter. They have over 2600 turbines covering 1.5% of their land, around 200 biogas plants, also PV arrays and solar thermal.

The feed in tariff has been the main instrument of implementation – every new installation is guaranteed a price for its output - for the next twenty years. Even though the tariff drops every year to reflect reductions in price and increases in efficiency the price you are offered when you install remains the same. This gives people the confidence to install. Werner describes it as ‘A tremendous success story’. They have had delegations from 50-60 different countries to look at it – wanting to know if its just a incentive for the producers and if the consumers are paying more and are maybe are not happy about it or whether it involves local investors and if the funds made locally are reinvested? It seems it’s a win-win situation. Over 10,000 people are employed in the industry locally, including many in the field of ‘re-powering’ where turbines are replaced with a larger, more efficient models and the old ones refurbished and down-cycled to the developing world. Although the global economic crisis affected the ship building and other traditional industries the region has come out better than most as the renewables market has continued to boom.

They do struggle with infrastructure, as we do in the UK. With centralized large scale power plants the electricity transmission cables get thinner as they stretch out to rural regions but when you want to feed in from wind in the other direction sometimes the cables aren’t big enough. This means downtime for wind turbines and missed opportunities for both energy and money generation. Werner believes that the big energy producing monopolies are deliberately obstructing the development of the grid to benefit their own profits. Even now they’re in negotiation with the government to prolong the life of several nuclear and coal plants. Germany exports the power of 5-7 nuclear power plants – they don’t need it for domestic consumption but the government is still considering continuing production. This despite bad publicity around a test storage site where more, and more toxic, waste was deposited than originally planned because the energy company didn’t have anywhere else to put it. Evidence has emerged that the choice of location came down not to geological advice (apparently it’s prone to seawater and so not recommended for nuclear) but to score points over the East German Government who had set up a similar facility just across the border. He describes it as ‘taking their own children hostage’. I ask about new nuclear but it seems that, like us, they stopped building 15-20 years ago. Unlike the UK however there is no support for new nuclear. Even the conservative Government sees that route as madness. I say that in the UK some people are saying that nuclear is safe now and although it’s not a popular choice that it’s inevitable. Werner says it’s a safe bet if we want war. If we replace coal with nuclear global uranium reserves would be gone in 20 years. Today Russia is buying nuclear mining areas in Australia. In Niger and Mali we have the beginnings of civil wars because of French and Russian nuclear companies try to get control of mining areas. ‘What we have in Iraq over oil we will have over nuclear in 15 years if we continue this. So if you say oh sorry we can’t send more soldiers to Iraq, OK - you can send next time to Australia or Congo’.

Werner sees it as a struggle between the centralists and the decentralists. ‘Renewable energy’ he says, ‘is democratic. If someone has a roof or a car which can use electricity instead of fuel they can produce and use renewable energy, but who can run a coal or nuclear power plant? It’s nothing more than the defense of privileges’

With 60-70% of the tax income in some parts of the area being linked to renewable energy there is a high level of awareness regionally. For example – many local people are against carbon capture and storage. One large energy producer has a plan to burn brown coal in Koln and then pump the captured carbon up to Schleswig Holstein, and they want European grants to do this. Even the government of Schlweslig Holstein changed their approach because of pressure form local people and have caused a new law to be written which says you cannot force regional governments to take the CCS waste against their will but it’s not in the statute books yet. So now the company are trying a different area which suffers from high unemployment in the hopes that the population there will be more easily bribed.

Werner admits that the awareness of energy does not necessarily translate into an awareness of other aspects of sustainability, especially transport, given the rural nature of the region and the difficulty of powering it with anything other than a liquid fuel. If they wanted to run all the vehicles of Schleswig Holstein on rapeseed oil they could produce 16% regionally – they would still have to import over 80%. I ask about the debate of land use for fuel as opposed to food and he says there are discussions locally about the ethics of feeding people or cars. He rolls his eyes at this and says, ‘Of course they don’t talk about how we feed animals instead of people – if we were vegetarians we could feed seven people from the same piece of land’ but it all sounds as theoretical as the same discussions in the UK – I think as long as the price of transport is so cheap that we can ship or fly in our food from elsewhere it will remain so.

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