By Fabíola Ortiz
Clean, renewable energies contribute to economic growth and job creation while decreasing dependency on imports. This is why governments should be increasing incentives for the development of renewable energy during a crisis like the one facing Europe today, German engineer Björn Pieprzyk told Tierramérica.
Clean energy sources play a key role in combating climate change and developing a greener economy, said Pieprzyk, a consultant with the Bundesverband Erneuerbare Energie (BEE), or German Renewable Energy Federation.
In an interview in Rio de Janeiro at one of the numerous events being held prior to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), which will take place in June in this Brazilian city, Pieprzyk told Tierramérica that Germany could meet all of its energy needs with renewable sources by 2050.
This is one of the goals of BEE, founded in 1991 as the political umbrella organization of the renewable energy sector in Germany. It now comprises 22 associations from the hydropower, wind, biomass, solar and geothermal energy sectors, representing a total of over 30,000 individual members and companies.
But a transition is needed from the existing energy system, based on hydrocarbon fuels such as coal, gas and oil, to these cleaner, renewable sources. This will require cutting subsidies for fossil and atomic energies, stressed Pieprzyk, who is also a co-founder of the Energy Research Architecture consulting firm.
TIERRAMÉRICA: How do you see the discussion of renewable energies in the context of the Rio+20 conference?
BJÖRN PIEPRZYK: Developments in the last 20 years have shown that renewable energies are the most important contributor for climate protection worldwide. We can continue with this growth, but for the future we need to make a transition from the existing energy system, and we need a level playing field to cut subsidies for fossil and atomic energies. Renewable energies need new incentives.
We need standards to monitor the real costs of fossil energy in the future. I expect clear and strong standards in the field of sustainability and social development. That means clear conditions for development where renewable energies shall play an important part.
TIERRAMÉRICA: What is the potential for renewable energies in Germany?
BP: Renewable energies account for 12 percent of the energy system. We are using about 20% renewable energy in the electricity sector, 9% in the heating sector and 6% in fuels. It is still a small percentage in comparison to fossil energies.
But the potentials are very high, especially in the solar energy sector, but also biofuel and hydropower. Germany will be able to cover 100% of its energy needs with renewable energies before 2050; in 30 to 40 years it will be possible to achieve these goals. This is the aim of our federation, although the majority of the German population and the government are less optimistic and expect that half of the energy demand in 2050 will be covered by renewable energies.
TIERRAMÉRICA: Are renewable energies economically viable today?
BP: In the last 10 years in Germany, the cost of renewable energy – wind and solar – decreased very fast. Nowadays the costs of renewable energy are close to fossil fuel prices to produce electricity. Atomic energy plants are much more expensive than renewable energies.
By next year, the cost to produce solar power in private households will be less than the price that they are paying now. A private household now has to pay about 25 euro cents (roughly 32 cents of a dollar) per kilowatt/hour. The price of solar power now is already less than this amount of money. This energy will be competitive.
TIERRAMÉRICA: Are the other countries of the European Union (EU) following this path of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energies?
BP: Germany is ahead, but some other countries are following this path and have much better conditions to use renewable energies. The UK and Ireland have a lot of sun in the south.
It is possible for the whole of Europe to follow this path and achieve goals in the next decades. But there is a need for more political and legal incentives in some sectors, especially the electricity sector.
TIERRAMÉRICA: What has been the impact of the economic crisis on renewable energies in the EU?
BP: In Germany investments in renewable energies are still stable, but there are some plans to cut support for solar energy. There are a lot of decentralized jobs in the whole country. In Germany it is a priority, and big companies like Siemens are earning a lot.
Private sector investment is about 25 billion euros (33 billion dollars) per year. The government has support programs for heating systems that come to less than half a billion euros (660 million dollars). Nearly all of the money is coming from companies.
Germany and Europe can become less dependent on energy imports, and renewable energies are already an important factor for economic growth and increasing rates of employment.
The problem is if governments react like Spain and Italy, cutting state support and legal incentives which are important at this point when renewable energies are so close to being competitive.
TIERRAMÉRICA: How do you see the situation of renewable energies in emerging countries like Brazil?
BP: Traditionally Brazil has a lot of experience in the use of hydropower and biomass to produce biofuels (such as ethanol). It is a leading country in this sector and is now starting to use wind energy and solar power. It has an advantage for those two energies, since at the moment the price is much lower than ten years ago.
There is a great possibility for Brazil to increase the percentage of renewable energy rapidly – for private households, companies and the whole economy. They also have possibilities to use modern technologies that are environmentally friendly and competitive.
However, Latin American countries still pay double the price in comparison to Europe for renewable energy. There are several reasons for that, for example, because it is a new market. There are now negotiations for new wind farms in Brazil that can produce energy for around 6 cents per kilowatt/hour.
But for companies to invest you need clear conditions for renewable energy. You need stable conditions for investors.