Obituary of Hermann Scheer: the passing of a pioneer

Miguel Mendonca

This week saw the very sad death of Dr Hermann Scheer, in many ways the father figure of German renewable energy, and a hugely influential figure worldwide. He was a fighter who seemed to relish his battles, and an inspirational, irreplaceable character.

Hermann died unexpectedly on Thursday the 14th of October, aged just 66 years old. In those years he fought the fight for renewable energy in face of huge opposition, sometimes from his own party (the Social Democrats), and endlessly from the big energy companies.

I worked with Hermann when we were both at the World Future Council (WFC), a Hamburg-based NGO. I was working as a junior researcher, and he was one of the founding council members. The founding council was made up largely of winners of the Right Livelihood Award, a.k.a. the alternative Nobel prize. Hermann won it in 1999 for his "indefatigable work for the promotion of solar energy worldwide".

I had written a policy study for the WFC, which looked at a dozen truly effective policies from around the world on sustainability, disarmament, health and so on. One of them was the feed-in tariff, the German renewable energy policy which, in just a few short years, created a new, world-beating industry, almost from scratch. The law had started small, but as it grew, and became increasingly effective, the big energy companies became increasingly nervous, then litigious. They tried everything, taking it as far as they could through the European courts. But they lost. The law won, and so did the citizens, communities and companies who wanted to get seriously engaged with renewable energy. Hermann was one of the chief architects and global promoters of this law.

From the early 1990s, the feed-in law and the German renewable energy industry grew. Thousands, then tens of thousands of jobs were created. The law was massively upgraded in 2000, then tweaked and refined on an ongoing basis, and the country now employs close to 340,000 people. The green sector as a whole employs around one million. This is more than the number of direct jobs in the German auto industry.

German renewable energy technologies saw a turnover of €37.5 billion last year, and exports worth billions each year. So much of this is owed to the policy which created the stable, supportive conditions for this industrial growth, and the political, social and economic embedding of renewable energy. The FIT has now spread to over 50 countries worldwide, and continues to be developed for different economies. He saw this as a means of taking action, as opposed to the slow grind of the international governmental conferences that he contended have for nearly 40 years followed the hidden motto of “Talk globally, postpone nationally”.

What really drove Hermann was his belief in the democratisation of energy. He was against anything that created or supported monopolies. It is evident that renewables must compete on a wildly uneven playing field, and so bringing the public on board is vital. Citizen and community engagement is therefore central to his vision of how renewable energy should develop. He opposed plans to import renewable energy from North African solar parks on this basis, and maintained this purist, ‘energy autonomy’ stance. It remains a fundamental question – should we go renewable no matter who owns the means of energy production, or would this undermine the participation and ownership that is arguably at the heart of making the transition to a sustainable world?

As energy underpins all economic activity, it is the most critical industry – no wonder the conventional energy industry commands such lobbying power, and receives billions of dollars in subsidies each year. Trying to compete from outside, and spread democratic energy to the citizenry of all countries – that is the task that Hermann stuck to for decades. He started and oversaw a number of organisations, including Eurosolar and the World Council for Renewable Energy. He was a long time promoter of the idea of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), which finally came into being last year.

I was always amused and inspired by Hermann’s public speaking. Anyone who has witnessed it won’t forget it. The first time I saw him speak at a conference was the European Renewable Energy Policy Conference in Brussels in 2007. He followed a long line of visually assisted presentations with the opening words, “There is a saying: do you have a powerpoint, or do you have something to say?”

He was an aggressive speaker at times, and often one of dry wit. He was also extremely knowledgeable, philosophical, practical, strategic and visionary. I felt he gave us permission to be bold, to talk straight and to have faith in our opinions. The last five years of my work have been largely based on his policy work, and not a little of my style is owed to his influence. Indeed many people around the world owe him a debt, and if we continue to advocate the democratisation of the energy sector through the move to a decentralised renewables-based energy system, future generations will owe him a considerable debt too.

He was far from the only one to make such an impact, but he was unique, and will long be remembered for his character, and his contribution.

Originally published by The Converging World, a a UK-based charity that aims to address issues arising from social inequality, creating mechanisms which link communities in the developed and developing world. Republished with the kind permission of Miguel Mendonca.

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