by Leopold Seiler

If you were a politician, Prof. Quaschning, what measures do you think can be implemented immediately in order to comply with the Paris climate agreement or the 1.5 °C limit? 

That is always the question. I would formulate the question in this way: “What would be necessary to uphold it?” If we recognize that measures are necessary because otherwise we will hit the wall, then they could be implemented. What is missing at the moment is the message that we have a necessity.

And which measures are immediately implementable?

We have to make our energy supply climate-neutral. In other words, we have to design the framework conditions in a way that allows us to build renewable energy immediately. This is the only chance to cover our energy needs in a climate-neutral way. What we are currently building is ridiculous, so we would need 200 years to achieve climate neutrality. 

I lead a research group for solar storage systems at our university. We have just published a study and found out that there are about 50 barriers preventing the expansion of photovoltaics. That is why one measure is not enough. A whole handful of paragraphs and laws have to be tackled and changed. But it would be relatively easy to double or triple the solar building with a sharp pen. 

Wind energy rules have also to be adjusted accordingly. At the moment we have practically no wind energy extensions any more. But without a high wind and solar energy increase we do not need to talk about climate neutrality. That is the number one problem for me. 

In the energy sector, we also need storage facilities, which means that the framework conditions must also be designed in such a way that storage facilities can be built. In other areas, we must not create any inherited liabilities. Oil and gas heating systems should be banned as far as possible. Denmark can serve as a role model here. They have already done that. Or you have to ban the combustion engine from the road as quickly as possible in the traffic sector. So from one date, ideally until 2025, no more new approvals. These are the sticking points that can already make an important difference.

Whether this is then enforceable or whether one dares to enforce it is always another question. If I were a politician, I would simply do that and say “If you don’t want that, then I won’t be re-elected”. 

This means that these measures should be implemented immediately. Can the goals of the Paris climate agreement even be reached at this point? 

Sustainable means that we must become climate neutral in the next 15 to 20 years. We currently have around 15 percent renewable energies, which means that we would have to go from 15 to 100 percent in the next 15 years. You see, you just have to start. I mean, we are now slowly strolling through the stadium but actually want to do a 5.000 meter run. Then you have to start running. Then it might be possible to manage to get the 5.000 meter run done in a decent time, but if you keep strolling around, it won’t work out. 

You just mentioned Denmark, Denmark has a pioneering role in climate policy and what exactly do the Danes do so much better than we Germans? 

Phew, so much better … They do a lot better in the heating sector. They probably don’t comply with the Paris climate agreement either. But the Scandinavian countries are generally somewhat less bad, to put it in a nutshell, than we Germans are. Denmark already generates over 50 percent of electricity production from renewable energy. A lot of wind energy, also there it has started much earlier than here. In the heating sector, they started early to develop concepts on how to get away from oil and gas heating. In the new building sector for example with heating networks, with biomass or with solar thermal energy and then implementing this with some courage. There are cities like Copenhagen where people have tried to push cars from the city and use more bicycles. These are a few good aspects. I wouldn’t say now that you can take any country as an example, but you can copy many good approaches from different countries and combine them and make the best of everything. I think that would be a good strategy. 

Is there a country where you say “they are doing it in the right way, that’s how it has to be”?

Not really. There is the climate protection index of “German Watch”, a ranking of different countries. The first three places are always left empty because there is no country that is taking sufficient measures to become climate neutral. Fourth place then, after the three free places, comes Sweden and then a few other Scandinavian countries. Germany ranks 27th, which shows how far we have already lost ground in the area of climate protection. Countries like Morocco and Turkey are ahead of us. It’s a shame that the “climate protection country” has dropped so far. 

You already indicated earlier that you, if you were a politician, would apply regulatory measures. Politicians are currently counting on CO2 certificates. Are CO2 certificates a way to become climate neutral? If so, how expensive would these have to be? 

The certificates can help on the way there, but they are clearly not the universal remedy. It is also easy to explain why. 

You can make certificates as expensive as you want, but if you don’t have a location for wind and solar power plants and you prevent them from being expanded, then the whole thing becomes insanely expensive and you have no technical way of becoming climate-neutral.

You also have to change the other framework conditions so that you can become climate neutral at all. Only then will the CO2 tax help to achieve the goal more quickly. In Switzerland, the term is therefore not “tax” but “steering fee”. This means trying to steer the country somewhere. But on the one hand we need to know where to go and on the other hand we need to set the framework conditions for it. Then you can steer towards the goal.

At the moment, a certain price is being set for one tonne of CO2. You can imagine that it rises very slowly, but if we want to become climate neutral someday, then the price also becomes infinitely high. We must have an overall package. That is why the price does not fit in. You have to have a target corridor and then you can say “Okay, if the target corridor is reached, then it’s good, if it’s not reached, then it just becomes more expensive to steer towards there more” and if you achieve your goals, you can also let go a little bit.

This means that you would first have to have a target corridor with CO2 reduction measures to go with it, and then you can steer towards the target path with a particular price. But now to simply decide on a price and say “everything will be fine”, and then with a price of only 10 € per tonne, where everyone knows that it changes nothing at all, that will not work. But even if we have 180 € per tonne, that would represent the immediate exit from coal, but not the end of the diesel engine. A coal-fired power station would therefore be so expensive that it would not be competitive. At a liter of fuel, if it were some 40 cents more expensive, yes, the Porsche Cayenne drivers would shiver for a moment, complain and then drive on. You can’t make the CO2 tax that expensive so that the combustion engine gets off the road.

Now Germany is only responsible for 2 percent of global CO2 emissions. What do you say to the people who are now to pay an additional CO2 tax on their petrol prices? 

Exactly! This is how I always hide behind others as well. Germany is in sixth place among the sinful countries. With the same argumentation, the countries 7 to 180 also do nothing more. In other words, climate protection can only work if all countries participate accordingly. How can you tell someone about climate protection in a developing country in Africa, which perhaps has a tenth of our CO2 emissions? Of course, they all will not take part either and in the end it won’t work. It is the sum of the CO2 quantities that causes the climate damage. So you can say that every tonne causes damage and therefore everyone who emits a tonne of CO2 also has to bear part of the total damage. Talking your way out of this and saying “My share is so small”, for the same reason you can also say “I don’t have to pay any more taxes”, because whether I pay taxes or not is completely irrelevant to the federal budget and that’s why I’m simply pulling myself out and refuse to pay taxes. Or I don’t have to vote anymore. We could also say that Munich will be deprived of the right to vote, because the people of Munich are about one percent of the population in Germany. So it’s an absurd argument. 

What can you do as a student? Most of them don’t have a car, barely eat any meat, many don’t fly on holiday anymore, what else can you do to push the energy revolution forward?

That’s good stuff. Students usually don’t have a car, they live in the city, where you don’t need a car anyway. I didn’t have a car either at that time. Not eating meat helps a lot. One sixth of all greenhouse gases come from the consumption of meat or animal-derived foods. Butter and milk are also problematic. If everyone would immediately stop consuming animal-derived foods, we would immediately have saved one sixth. That is a decision based purely on consumption. Simply put something else in your shopping cart at the supermarket. That is something anyone can do. 

Also students fly relatively much. That also has to be said clearly. I always ask my students how much CO2 they produce. The range last semester was from 4 to 25 tonnes. From eight tonnes onwards I only have to ask where they flew. That is why we need a different way of thinking about flying. At the moment, global air traffic is not so dramatic, but that is because many people in poor countries have no money at all to fly. After all, air traffic accounts for ten percent of emissions in Germany. In other words, if everyone stops flying and everyone were vegan, we would save 25 percent immediately by changing our behavior without costing any money. That is a very simple matter. 

Other points, such as making products climate-neutral, changing the heating system, making traffic completely climate-neutral, are all a little more complicated. That takes longer, but these two things, air traffic and nutrition, could be easily accomplished and thus move a big lever.

Keyword “decentralized power supply”, do you have any ideas how this could be promoted?

Decentralized means that everyone has a solar system hanging on their rooftop or balcony. The framework conditions have to be improved. I mentioned this earlier, there are more than 50 obstacles that prevent solar systems from being expanded. The Federal Government’s goal is mainly to move away from small plants to large tendering plants on greenfield sites and thus move away from decentralized plants. It would simply be necessary to remove the barriers that we have identified, improve the framework conditions for rooftop and balcony systems, and then this would work on its own. That’s a bit of a pity. There is a certain market, but you could easily increase it five or tenfold if you set the right framework conditions. That’s where politics is needed. 

What would be the conditions for a system of decentralized power supply? Or what kind of 50 barriers are there, perhaps you could name two or three?

One important point is, that it is very complicated, which means I have a lot of bureaucracy. I almost need a tax consultant for a solar system. Of course, that puts off a lot of people. What you collect in taxes for a small solar power system is probably less than the administrative effort for the tax authorities. That’s absurd. You have to introduce a trivial limit and say “Under 30kW – just do it and it’s fine”. That would help insanely much. Starting from ten kilowatts, that is about six to seven square meters, you have to start writing down the electricity you consume yourself and pay your own consumption taxes for it. These are all barriers that get in the way and make many people lose interest. 

At least one should ensure a reasonably adequate yield for the installations. The key factor is how many cents I get for the feed into the grid. If I cut that or radically lower it, it won’t work out at some point. That’s where the federal government puts on the axe. Then, of course, there are many smaller obstacles, but these are first of all very large adjusting screws that you can turn. 

Germany somewhat missed the opportunity for photovoltaics. We used to play a pioneering role in this sector. Meanwhile, the Chinese are the ones with the greatest market power. Where are the new opportunities for Germany in which we can become active in the renewable energy sector? 

In photovoltaic itself it is a little bit difficult. We were the world market leader in this area in 2009. We basically exited this market completely. There are only a few rudimentary companies left. You could try to get back on the market, but then we also need a reliable home market. But as long as you have this stop-and-go from the political side, no company will dare to invest even a fraction of its capital. Once again, it is very important to have a reliable political framework. Otherwise you don’t stand a chance. But getting back into photovoltaics will be very difficult because the Chinese have very strong market power, so you would have to invest a lot of money. This requires very, very good framework conditions and clear political signals that you want strong solar growth long-term and, like the automotive industry, are willing to support this when things get tight. At the moment, the signals are more of a stop-and-go, as in the wind industry, for example. We are also in the process of terminating the wind industry. Then there is a crisis discussion and the result is that the politicians will consider in the next few months what they could do to make the situation better again. Imagine a crisis in the automotive industry, where ad hoc a quarter of the workforce have to be made redundant because car sales have collapsed to a quarter. What an outcry in Germany! When it concerns the wind industry, people only shrug their shoulders. So you’ll lose this industry at some point. So it’s important to have reliable framework conditions, very clear signals from politicians that you want something like this at all. That would help a lot. Also for investors, so that they are investing again into this technology. 

Besides that, we have relatively good framework conditions. We have good research and well-trained people in this area. But as long as there is no reliable market, no political signals, you completely have to forget the wishful thinking that you could become a pioneer or catch up. 

You have just addressed the issue of e-cars. Yesterday the executive boards of German car manufacturers met with politicians. Major measures have now been decided and the purchase of electric cars is to be subsidized to a greater extent. Do you think it’s a good idea to switch to e-cars, or do you think that a completely different way of thinking has to take place? 

A bit ambivalent. You have to see, we want to become climate neutral in the year 2050. If you had a dictatorial government, you could say that cars are no longer sold and we do everything with public transport. I cannot do that in a democracy. I can only set the framework conditions for what types of cars may be sold. The CO2 or nitrogen oxide limit could also be adjusted accordingly, so that no more combustion engines can be sold. I can do that as a politician. I can, of course, also try to make the car more expensive and uncomfortable and make local public transport convenient and good. But in the last 30 years we have tried exactly the opposite. A lot of railroads have been shut down. The railway has become more expensive due to privatization. On the other hand, we have invested huge sums in road construction and tried to improve the framework conditions for cars. That should be reduced. Significantly. However, I do not believe that in 15 years, even if we now make ambitious expansion of local public transport, people will no longer buy cars. It would be nice if we could halve the demand for cars in the next 20 years. But then there will still be some left over and the rest will simply have to be electric. This is the only chance to become climate neutral. Alternative fuels will not work in Germany. Then the strategy of focusing on the electric car is a good one, but to focus on a strategy with 44 million electric cars is certainly the wrong one.

Do you have a wish for designers or art colleges? What would you desire from us as design students? 

That’s a good question. I believe that the climate and energy revolution is always shaped by renunciation. That’s why many people don’t want to move along or say “Yes, well, I have to limit myself. I don’t want that”. The important thing is to make climate protection and the energy revolution sexy. Design plays a certain role here. Take Tesla, for example. It’s not just design, it’s the technical gimmicks and stuff like that. Most of them, 90 percent for sure, buy a Tesla because it’s cool and not because they want to protect the climate. You would have to try to transfer that to other products, which is not always easy. You can try to do that with solar systems

so that you go beyond the coolness factor and make the turnaround without having to regulate and prohibit. At the moment, many buyers are still very reluctant because they have some unjustified “fear of range”, or something else. All people who have switched to electric cars are more than enthusiastic. This could tip over similarly like the smartphone. It also worked when you see how a cool, sexy designed product suddenly turned communication upside down. It’s weird, if you would have said 30 years ago that people would spend 1.000 € to buy telephones, then they would have said that you are crazy. But today they do it because it’s cool. 

I’m not a designer so I can’t say where you can design a great product. But I think that would be a big leverage and key to pushing the energy revolution and climate protection forward in this way. 

At the beginning I asked what you would do if you were a politician. So the last question would be now: What would you do if you were CEO of RWE?

(laughs) Oh God. Look for a new job. The company can’t really be saved. Not through measures that can be justified ethically. They simply have the wrong power plant park and worked towards it for forty years. That’s a pure coal company. Now they have a new strategy with which they are trying to get out of it, but they must continue to put the brakes on or try to get big compensation for their coal-fired power plants. So I would rather be unemployed than the CEO of RWE. The company can no longer be helped. Ten years ago something could have been done. I would have said “Okay, the planning for new coal-fired power plants that are in the pipeline: stop all of them.”. Try to make sure that you don’t create any inherited liabilities. Now they’re all there, and we already had our hands above our heads at the time. Now they just have to see that if they don’t want to go bankrupt, they either convert the coal-fired power plants into cash and pay out fat compensation when they get out of coal, or that they delay the energy turnaround by exerting an influence on the energy turnaround in order to get out a few more years of operation, so that those are not just investment ruins. I think the current leadership is the first, as it was at VW, to have more or less understood where to go now. But they have this enormous tanker with inherited burdens now, and you can’t turn it around and turn it into a speedboat.

We are at the end of this interview, I thank you for your time and your willingness to do the interview.

Thank you and much success for your studies.

Photo: Silke Reents

Volker Quaschning is an engineering scientist and professor for renewable energy systems at the University of Applied Sciences (HTW) in Berlin. His textbook “Regenerative Energy Systems: Technology – Calculation – Simulation” is considered a standard reference on the subject of renewable energies and was first published in 1998. From 1999 to 2004, Quaschning was project manager for solar systems analysis in Almería, Spain, a branch of the German Aerospace Center. Thereafter he started teaching at the HTW in Berlin. He teaches and conducts research in the field of regenerative energy systems. Together with various scientists, he initiated the Scientists for Future movement in early 2019 and supports the Friday for Future movement for more climate protection.