The Feasta Review, number 2



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Eamon Ryan, TD, is the spokesperson on energy for the Irish Green Party.

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I've seen the future and it's powered by the sun

The Solar Economy

Building an economy for the earth

Herman Scheer
Earthscan, 2002
ISBN 1 85383 835 7 £17.99

review by Eamon Ryan TD

An Irish politician finds that a book written by one of his German counterparts makes him want to become an engineer when he grows up.

The Solar Economy starts with a withering critique of the present fossil fuel economy. It lambasts those politicians who leave long-term planning to international stock markets that never look beyond the next quarter. It describes the risks posed by the lengthy supply chains needed to transport dwindling fossil fuel resources to run outdated combustion machinery and a dysfunctional agricultural system. It predicts not only increased international conflict as power blocks squabble for the remaining fuel reserves but also the concentration of wealth in fewer countries and hands.

Such warnings have been heard for at least thirty years and they seem to be having less and less effect on our collective conscious and our will to change. It is as if someone had been highlighting the fact that the King has no clothes for so long that we have become comfortable and complacent about the naked truth of our unsustainable economic model.

But Scheer is not simply foretelling doom if we carry on as we are. He presents a sweeping vision of what the renewable alternative could and should be like. His vision penetrates beyond the obvious potential of photovoltaics, wind power and biomass to explore the ways solar solutions will change every aspect of our economy and lives. Its realisation involves not just putting a few PV panels on our societal roof, but changing the plumbing, wiring and the basic building blocks of our society to build a renewable future.

A key step in that direction will be the development of new energy storage technologies for use by intermittent renewable power sources like wind. A lot of attention has been paid recently to storing energy from the wind by using surplus electricity from wind turbines to electrolyse water to provide hydrogen for use in fuel-cell-powered vehicles. My own hunch, however, having read Scheer's overview of the emerging technologies, is that innovations in areas such as compressed air cylinders may be a better bet in the near future. Unlike battery technology there are no messy chemicals and test cars already have a range of 200km using a compressed air cylinder which is lighter and more compact than any battery in existing electrical vehicles. In my dreams I am already scheming to open the first compressed air re-energising station on the Ring of Kerry to power all those coaches flying along the road.

Indeed, this book will make most of its adult readers yearn to become engineers when they grow up. It is a rallying call for technologists to save the planet by designing ways to store the energy provided free of charge by the sun. As I write, I am sure an engineer in a small lab or a garage somewhere is putting the final touches to a prototype energy storage system that will mark this new century in the same way that Henry Ford's production of the Model T marked the last.

In response to a question in the Dail in 2003, Minister of State John Brown cited the storage of renewable energy as a major problem; he said "In America, they are investing approximately $27 billion on hydrogen fuel research to deal with this matter. One can therefore see the enormity of the storage problem and the financial implications of dealing with it." What a terrible pity the minister's advisers had not seen the positive side to that statistic and insisted that Ireland be in the forefront of similar research. It was unfortunate that the recently-established Science Foundation of Ireland was not given a special remit to fund new sustainable technologies, as has happened in several other countries.

One of Scheer's central convictions is the need for our society to return to the land. He believes that the development of a solar economy will see the location of energy sources and the accompanying storage industries in diverse and often peripheral locations. He claims solar technologies will also bring an agricultural revolution which will have dramatic consequences for rural life. His vision is not of a return to a medieval world of subsistence farming but rather the promotion of what he calls "real biotechnology" to develop the new applications to which biological materials can be put. For example, in place of pesticides he sees the possibility of using sugar-enriched ethanol, and instead of plastic pipes ones made from organic fibre. He insists that local farmers rather than multinational companies holding genetic patents should control the development of new biotechnologies.

The flight from the land of recent years is understandable when one considers how sudden market vagaries or crop failures have broken so many farmers. The heartbreaking isolation of such a situation is less likely when there is a diversity of sources of rural economic wealth. In a solar-powered world, people would be able to depend on income from renewable energy production as well as from crops grown to replace the petrochemical products of today.

The "futurist" movement in the 1920s and 1930s was characterised by paintings of trains and cars moving at great speed. If Herman Scheer was to paint his own futurist vision I think he would do so with paintings of a rural landscape in which people were working at their cleverest to reap the most sustainably from the land.

Herman Sheer is an SPD member of the German Parliament and he is wise to all ways in which the twists and turns of the regulatory process can have a profound effect on the development of the renewable energy industry. Industry sources here can only look on with envy to the political support that has helped bring about the development of 16,000MW of wind power in a country that is positively becalmed compared to our own windy island.

In his economic analysis he rails against the tendency to ignore the marginal long-run fuel costs in the assessment of competing energy projects. The positive news is that the cost of electricity from the wind is now sneaking below that from the cheapest alternative, combined cycle gas power stations. We are at a unique moment when we can either harness the development of technology to create a more equitable and cleaner economy or else face a series of unpredictable crises as our fossil fuels run out. The former process will require not only good engineers to make the necessary technological advances but also political support to ensure we take the right steps forward. Having thought about it again, perhaps those who read Scheer's book will, besides becoming engineers, have to be more political when they grow up as well.

Continue to Michael Layden's review of The Party's Over, by Richard Heinburg

This book review is from
Growth:The Celtic Cancer,
the second Feasta Review. Copies of the Review can be ordered online from Green Books, priced at £9.95 plus postage and packaging.
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