On 10/9/2011, from 9:30 till 18:00, I attended a Burger Conference in the Deutsches Museum (Munich), on the subject of Energy Technologies for the Future. It was commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and organised by Bonn University. (This is a strange ministry; according to the Constitution, education is entirely a matter for the Provinces)! Each “Burger” received in advance a well written 4 page summary on the subject. The only dubious aspect was the implied assumption that the German decision to quickly abandon nuclear power was a rational decision in view of events in Japan (Fukushima).
Each of us at the start of the meeting received a questionnaire on our knowledge of the subject. It would have been better to get this in advance. The questions as usual were unclear, for instance whether one (“man”) gets enough information. Should I restrict “one” to myself, to people interested in the subject, to Germans, to internet surfers, or to typical world citizens?
Another questionnaire came at the end, and was similarly problematic. A question concerned whether “Burgers” had enough say in deciding policy. In Germany they do, since it is largely democratic, (but I am an exception). (The general opinion was that I am a “Burger”, although I cannot vote in German federal elections). But a later question hinted that “experts” and presumably politicians, lobbyists, managers, etc. were here not to be regarded as “Burgers”. Some of the questions concerned how the conference was organised, but gave no opportunity to point out what was done badly.
Strangely, we were asked whether we were clear about the purpose of the conference, whereas little attempt was made to tell us what this was. I suppose the main purpose was to help the government to decide how to win the next election. But of course, this cannot be said, as it would be illegal use of tax money.
The conference started with talks from Prof. Behrendt and from Frau Quennet-Thielen. She gave another talk at the end. She emphasised that nobody (in Gerrmany) was expected to do without anything, which does not fit my view of what is needed. These three talks were largely a waste of time. The word “wir” was used many times, without a clear context. But it became clear that generally Germans were meant, although the problems of energy are worldwide. Four experts gave short talks and were generally available to answer questions. I thought these four were very good.
The “Burgers” were divided into tables, each table having a moderator from Bonn University and nine Burgers. Each table had a sub-topic. I chose a table with the sub-topic “renewable energy”. The others were “grid and storage”, “energy to replace German nuclear power” and “energy efficiency”.
I was surprised to experience how knowledgeable all those at my table were. I do not suppose it was different at the other tables. I guess of the randomly selected people invited to attend, at most one in ten had enough time and interest to do so. Compensation for expenses was not enough to encourage the rest to attend. We had been told that a good mix of levels of education was wanted, but this was not attained. At my table, one man and the three ladies said less than the rest, and seemed there mostly to listen and learn more about how to react to the situation, particularly concerning investment in heating etc. The two youngest men said not very much in the earlier stages, but were influential in producing our final report. We other three were largely there to give our opinions, (as well as learn). The Burgers present were not representative. I found that good, although some opinions from poorer people would perhaps have been interesting.
No table seemed to have serious doubts whether the German nuclear stop was right. I see it as largely a vote catcher. It may also be intended as a signal to other countries, but that will hardly work. Of course it is also a signal to other countries that CO2 emission is not very important.
We were asked at the end whether everybody had had an equal chance to give opinions. Despite being handicapped by my clumsy German, I was able to do so. (Some people may have been handicapped by lack of opinions). But I was not able to contribute to the result produced at my table. Tiring at the end, I could not get a word in before the contributions were suddenly cut off. After the results were presented, probably I had a chance to inform all present. But the microphone did not come near, and I was worried whether I could express myself well enough.
The contribution from my table concentrated on building houses (and also factories, offices, etc.) so that they did not need energy inputs. At least they should be built to make later improvements easy. We found out that there are already EU rules in this direction, which still need to be implemented by Germany. My warning about the German tendency towards overkill with regulations, (which are later not kept up to date), was perhaps rightly ignored. The suggestion that utilities (water, electricity, etc.) should be nationalised was also ignored. (I was rather against this). Some Burgers seemed to think that communes organise things better than the industrial concerns. I agree that the car lobby has shown its strength by getting lax standards for CO2 emission by big cars. But do Germans really want to give up this source of income? “Someone else will make them if we don’t”.
I am a little ashamed to have failed to spread my view about a very serious problem. Germans take an interest in the world, but give up on it too quickly. Perhaps this is selfishness; perhaps it is even due to a realistic judgment of Germany’s influence in the world. No table’s report even mentioned German foreign policy! Since signing the Kyoto protocol, Germany has back peddled regarding the (world) climate. Ours was the only report that mentioned the EU, and that was because the EU got there before us. I heard that Germany is now a brake on international developments. The poorer Mediterranean countries ought to become good sources of solar power.
There is nothing surprising about Fukushima. It is hardly wise to build a nuclear power station on a beach where there are regular earthquakes. (There is another like that in California)! Why does Fukushima get so much publicity when the tsunami killed many more? Statistically, nuclear power has been safer in deaths per kilowatt century than most competitors, even if Chernobyl caused 2000 deaths. People worry about the radiation, yet are ready to fly at high altitude and to live in granite areas. People worry about storage of nuclear waste for a million years, although mankind is unlikely to dominate the world for even another thousand years. I could agree with a stop on nuclear fusion power generation, if only to avoid proliferation of bomb material. But climate change due to CO2 emission will kill millions this century.
I learnt three little new facts:
• Photovoltaic roofs are a problem for firemen, who are liable to get a serious shock spraying water on them.
• Photovoltaic power, (only 2% of German electric power) already destabilises the grid in Bavaria). What to do with it on fine summer Sundays?
• The Deserttech project needs rethinking. Improvements in photovoltaic undermine the idea of using the sun to heat oil.