Members of the German parliament don't usually create much of a stir outside Europe. But Hermann Scheer electrified a Washington audience last month with his gale-force enthusiasm. Nuclear fission and fossil-fuel burning amount to "global pyromania," he told a conference of environmental activists. "Renewable energy is the fire extinguisher." By mid-century, he asserted confidently, wind, solar and other renewables can snuff out all conventional energy sources.
A radical vision? Perhaps. But Scheer is no blowhard. In the past decade, this earnest economist has, more than any single political leader, transformed Europe's energy landscape. Founder in 1988 of EUROSOLAR, the Continent's premier renewable-energy organization, he pushed through laws that have turned Germany into the world's biggest wind-power user, surpassing the U.S., and the second biggest solar-energy generator after Japan. This is remarkable for a country that is not particularly windy, nor sunny. In Germany and beyond, says Reinhard Loske, energy spokesman for the nation's Green Party, Scheer "is the prime mover for the cause of renewable energy."
A Social Democratic Party member, Scheer, 58, began as a disarmament expert and became convinced of the need for nonfossil alternatives to potentially dangerous nuclear energy. In 1991 he sponsored legislation opening Germany's grid to renewable-energy producers and setting a generous fixed price for their power. Today a third of the earth's wind energy is produced on German soil. In 2000 another Scheer-sponsored law increased the price for solar energy and launched the installation of 100,000 solar panels on homes and businesses. In June he orchestrated a law eliminating taxes on bio-fuels, such as gasoline substitutes made from plants. That's a significant benefit in a nation where gasoline costs $4 a gallon. Meanwhile, it was Germany's example that inspired the European Parliament to mandate a doubling of the use of renewable power across the Continent.
German utilities, which fought the renewables laws in court and lost, decry the fact that the subsidies cost the state $1.5 billion a year. They say windmill owners are paid three times the market price of conventional energy. But experience shows that as wind power becomes more common, its cost comes down.
Scheer, who has preached his gospel in 100 countries, does not believe the world can afford to wait for the market alone to make wind and solar power competitive with fossil fuels. Renewable energy, he says, "is necessary for the assurance of life on earth. There is no time to waste." --By Margot Roosevelt. With reporting by Ursula Sautter/Bonn and Charles P. Wallace/Berlin