A global vision on renewable energy with Hans-Josef Fell
“Germany’s civil society with millions of people supporting renewable energy is a strong movement tackling global challenges.”
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As long as he can remember, Hans-Josef Fell has always committed himself to building a greener and better world. Whether as a spokesman for energy and research policy in the Green Party parliamentary group, as a member of the German Parliament, the Bundestag, or as the current President of the Energy Watch Group, Fell fights for his beliefs and convictions.
Hans-Josef Fell joined the Green Party after years of interest in renewable energy and environmental protection and was a member of the German Parliament from 1998 to 2013. He helped to secure an increase in research funding for photovoltaics, geothermal energy, bioenergy, batteries for electric cars, bionics, and nanotechnology. This funding was crucial for the current worldwide expansion of solar thermal power technology and for the expansion of geothermal power generation throughout Germany. Hans-Josef Fell also initiated legislation exempting biofuels from taxes, and was also actively involved in establishing the legislative framework for renewables at the European level.
Today, Hans-Josef Fell is the founder and president of the Energy Watch Group, a network of parliamentarians and independent researchers who conduct research on global energy developments.
The Beam: A little bit about your background. What motivated you to join the Green Party in 1992 and inspire change in renewable energy?
Hans-Josef Fell: Since my time as a student in the 1970s, I have been interested in ecology, global warming and the peace movement. In the context of the OPEC oil crisis and the anti-nuclear movement, I envisioned that renewable energies must remove fossil and nuclear energy from its throne in the next decades. As the agenda of the German Green Party was the closest to this vision, I joined them.
You’ve always been a visionary leader in renewable energy and the future of our planet, which has seen Germany significantly change its mindset towards sustainability. Can you explain how your work over the past 20 years played a role in this?
Germany’s civil society with millions of people supporting renewable energy is a strong movement tackling global challenges. This grassroots movement has steadily gained more political power, for example with its foundation of the Green Party, leading to political action and new environmental legislation. Since I came from this movement, I always felt obliged to its commitment to renewable energy. Here I argued uncompromisingly for a circular economy based on 100% renewables and the zero emissions target. Beginning with my work at the NGO-level, I established a 100% renewable and ecological-friendly house in 1985. Afterwards I was elected as an alderman in my hometown Hammelburg. Here I organized the first local law for a renewable feed-in tariff in 1993 and the first worldwide community for solar electricity businesses. This experience made me able to promote the German feed-in tariff, which laid the groundwork for the tremendous ‘Industrial Revolution’ of renewables. Since 2000, I promoted renewables in many countries, e.g. as the chair of the German Chinese Parliamentary group in China. Now we are witnessing China emerge as the new world leader in renewables.
What has changed in terms of renewable energy since 1998?
Until 1998, political support for renewables was only on the research level but did not create conditions for its introduction into the market. To enable the renewables’ entry into the market and to scale them out on an industrial level, we introduced a framework for renewable energy legislation including the feed-in tariff. These instruments consequently minimized the costs of renewables. My main goal was to make climate protection economically lucrative. Germany’s transition to renewable energy was essential to make these technologies profitable and to help them expand rapidly worldwide.
What remains the main obstacles to the development of renewable energy today and in the future?
The businesses based on fossil and nuclear resources still play an important role in the world economy, especially in the energy, building, and transport sector. Therefore, many companies fear the deployment of renewables as new competition and are trying to prevent the global energy transition. Very often they involve media and lobby groups, sometimes they even influence politics and society in the public debate. This is the main obstacle, but as fossil fuel prices are falling, the financial ability of traditional energy companies is diminishing as well. We hope that this will lead to a decline of lobbying activities. The bankruptcy of the biggest private coal company, Peabody, in April 2016 shows us that we are on the edge of a transition to an emission-free economy — the only system, which will save our planet.
How do global conferences (such as COP21 in Paris) make a difference?
Global conferences are important to stimulate the public debate. Unfortunately, they are not able to solve problems, because the fossil and nuclear industries are promoting unsuitable solutions. These ‘low-carbon’ solutions, especially carbon capture and storage, natural gas, and nuclear energy make renewables only play a secondary role. Therefore these solutions cannot protect the climate, but it is at the center of COP21. Under this condition, COP21 is not able to protect our climate.
Are there any current renewable energy research projects that particularly fascinate you?
Biochar is an interesting product because it upcycles problematic waste from sewage and food to a valuable and clean fuel. It cannot only be used as a CO2-neutral substitute for dirty mineral coal in conventional coal power plants. Biochar can also replace mineral oil and natural gas in the plastic industry to clean it for the environment and climate. Additionally, it can substitute fossil based fertilizers on farmland and reduce the atmospheric carbon concentration. In the future Biochar will be a key technology for CO2-neutral energy generation and carbon sinks, so our planet gets a chance for cooling, instead of global warming.
How do you envision the renewable energy industry in 10 to 20 years from now?
In 10 to 20 years, the conventional energy businesses will flip a marginal role. New fossil and nuclear investments won’t be made due to their unprofitability and the existing energy systems will be replaced by renewable ones. The overall conversion to a zero emission-based energy sector will gain more and more momentum in the next years. The Paris climate target of 1.5°C needs a zero emission world by 2035. 100% renewables in the energy sector combined with biochar will make us achieve this goal.
As the founder of Energy Watch Group, can you tell us about some of the organisation’s latest developments and future plans?
Energy Watch Group is an independent network of scientists and parliamentarians. In our last studies we revealed the limitations of fossil and nuclear resources globally, which lead to the destabilization of economy and wars for resources. We had predicted a decrease of oil and gas fracking in the US for 2015 and today we can see that we have been the only ones who made a correct forecast. Among our plans is an analysis of the economic impact of the drop of oil prices on the big oil companies. We are also planning a comprehensive study of a global energy supply based on 100% renewables in all sectors (electricity, heating, transport, industry). Here we will show the global energy demand and its supply with weather-dependent renewables in an hourly resolution. The first analysis from the Lappeenranta University of Technology has shown that a total renewable energy supply is not only feasible, but economically more lucrative than the fossil and nuclear scenario. We are currently looking for further funding for this study.
Which companies or organisations are the most interesting for you today for the future of renewable energy?
The most important drivers of renewables are the hundreds of thousands of highly innovative small and medium-sized enterprises. They include small manufacturers as well as energy communities, which are financing projects and innovations with the citizens’ private capital. Big companies like SAP, Google, Apple and now Tesla are pushing the market further, although energy is not their original business area. Traditional energy companies are losing ground at the same time. Moreover, Chinese and Asian companies are advancing and play a bigger role than ever. It is sad to see Europe losing its technological advantage of the last years to China and the U.S. In the long term, this will have dramatic consequences on future economic development in Europe.
Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou