Vaclav Smil on the Energiewende

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Because of the efforts of Bill Gates, the great inter-disciplinary thinker Vaclav Smil, has become much more of a name. Those of us who have taken much pleasure from his many books welcome this fact. Here he is last week on Germany’s Energiewende.

As always Smil is capable of making necessary observations that others are either unwilling or incapable of making, drawing attention to the essentially socially regressive nature of solar power in a country where most people do not own their homes:

What I find really remarkable is that so little attention has been given to an aspect of die Energiewende that is no less perverse than increased greenhouse gas emissions: indeed, that curiously overlooked reality is inimical to the animus of left-leaning green and socialist parties (the latter one now in the government) — and yet both of them chose to promote the shift, and they still keep silent in this critical regard.

The matter has been overlooked because most people are not aware of some surprisingly large differences in the rate of homeownership among high-income economies. The aggregate U.S. rate is about 65 percent, the UK rate is nearly identical, and the rates in Spain and Italy are about 80 percent — but the latest statistics show that only 43 percent German families own their home. What is even more noteworthy is the distribution of homeownership according to disposable income. In the United States, nearly 90 percent of households in the last quartile own their homes, and the rate is still 50 percent in the lowest quartile, while the corresponding German rates are just over 60 percent and barely over 20 percent. Of course, home owners have been able, for two decades, to take advantage of state subsidies and a guaranteed high price for electricity generated from their homes, essentially an effortless income for homeowners with enough initial capital to plaster their roofs with PV panels.

Renters (without roofs and often with no initial capital) cannot enjoy benefits available to their richer compatriots, but they are not exempt from paying rising electricity prices.

With some noteable exception, such as George Monbiot, left leaning environmentalists have essentially ignored the fact that rooftop solar is socially regressive. Perhaps the increasing number of US conservatives warming to rooftop solar will give them a hint of this reality.