When Bonn kicks off the Renewables 2004 conference next week, it'll be the fulfillment of a promise made two years ago at the U.N. summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
Hydro-power is just one area where Germany wants to be a world leader
Schröder announced his intention to invite leaders to a conference on renewable energy in Germany once it became clear that the European Union wasn't going to reach its goal in Johannesburg.
The EU wanted to increase the share of renewable energy sources to at least 15 percent of primary energy supply by 2010. But it ran into resistance from countries such as the United States, Saudi Arabia and Australia. Instead of concrete goals, the action plan from Johannesburg was awash in vague intentions to support the growth of the renewables sector.
Germany reacted by founding the Johannesburg Renewable Energy Coalition (JREC). Over the past two years, it has grown to include 87 countries -- the EU states, several small island states particularly affected by climate change, as well as numerous developing countries from South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. According to the German environment ministry, many of these nations are among those which would most benefit from renewables.
"Today there are 1.6 billion people around the world who have no access to modern energy sources, such as electricity," ministry spokesman Norbert Gorissen told Deutsche Welle. "They get most of their energy by burning firewood, which presents severe health risks. On this basis, there can't be any real economic development, and that's why access to energy that doesn't damage the environment is such an important topic."
Health risks, costs
Each year, around 1.6 million people in the developing world die from the effects of air pollution caused by wood fires -- almost the same number that die from malaria. But even in developing countries that have power stations, hydro, solar and wind energy could provide cleaner alternatives.
In countries such as the Dominican Republic, energy is almost solely generated by oil thermal power units. Manfred Konukiewitz of Germany's ministry for economic cooperation and development said that presents problems, especially when oil prices are as high as they are now.
"Developing countries will have an oil bill that is $60 billion (€50 billion) higher this year. In comparison, the total yearly amount of development aid from all donors put together is $50 billion. That means that all that development aid isn't enough to cover the oil costs that these countries will have because of the current hike in oil prices," said Konukiewitz.
Leading by example
Wind power turbines, with village of Klettwitz in foreground, Brandenburg, Germany.
Germany is determined to play a leading role in the development and export of renewable energies. Of course, that means German firms can expect to profit from the renewables boom. But when it comes to exports, progress is frequently slowed by circumstances beyond Germany's control.
"We have a lot of interest coming from Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Ecuador and other countries," explained Felix Losada of Nordex, a German company that builds windmills. "But it's all a question of what extent we're able to do business with them. The conditions on the ground in the interested country have to fit. There has to be certain amount of financial and political security, and the political will has to be there. Conferences such as the one in Bonn are sending the right signal, but we just have to wait until all these words are turned into action by the politicians."
It's up to politicians, he said, to create a market for renewable energies. Long-term planning is essential -- there may be no costs associated with the mining of coal, oil or gas with renewables, but a large amount of investment is needed for the construction of windmills, hydro-turbines or solar panels. According to the head of the German Wind Energy Institute, Jens Peter Molly, Germany has to set an example for other countries with its Renewable Energy Law.
"Germany has taken on a very strong leadership role," said Molly. "Without the support Germany has shown for wind energy, there'd be no wind energy development laws in France or Brazil. For example, in the past when I tried to make the case for wind energy in Brazil, their reaction was, 'Oh, you're just trying to sell us stuff that even you yourselves don't use'."
Renewable energy activists in Germany are hopeful that the upcoming conference in Bonn will help persuade other countries to begin the conversion away from oil, coal and gas to sun, wind and water.
"It's not realistic for us to expect energy policy to do a 180 degree turn," said Sven Teske of Greenpeace Germany. "But we hope to at least set the course."