Franz Alt, 73, has supported the cause of climate protection for many years. After studying political science, history, philosophy and theology and writing his doctoral thesis on Konrad Adenauer, Alt became the head of the political programme “Report” and presented it for twenty years from 1972. He then managed “Zukunftsredaktion” (editorial team of the future) at SWR and also presented the programmes “Grenzenlos” and “Querdenker” at 3sat. Today Franz Alt writes books and background reports for over 40 newspapers and magazines and speaks and lectures all over the world. He describes the accident with the reactor in Chernobyl as his “Big Bang” in relation to energy. Since then he has campaigned for a solar energy revolution. He has received many awards for his ecological engagement, including the first “European Solar Prize for Journalism” for his book “Die Sonne schickt uns keine Rechnung”, and his home page “” has also been awarded the European Solar Prize. © Bigi Alt

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:: "The future of energy - a moral dilemma - The market is ecologically blind"

His personal turning point was the accident with the reactor in Chernobyl. Since then journalist and author Franz Alt has tirelessly campaigned for a radical rethink of our energy industry compassing the two big environmental issues: EnergyEfficiency and renewable energies. Franz Alt is a fervent advocate of a new ethical approach. A discussion.

In your book entitled “Die Sonne schickt uns keine Rechnung” (“The sun doesn’t send us a bill”) you already anticipated the Energy Turnaround in 1993. Do you see yourself as a prophet?

Franz Alt: No, not as a prophet, but as a journalist who takes a global approach and does not just focus on individual aspects. At that time everyone could have known that climate change was set to become the biggest problem of the 21st century – there were enough scientific studies and evidence about it. People just refused to believe it. It was not until the heat wave in the summer 2003, one of the worst natural disasters in Europe‘s history when 60,000 lost their lives, that we started to look at things differently. And the journalists were no exception.


So it‘s not just the politicians who failed to do their duty, but also the press?

Alt: Without a doubt. With their duty to inform the public, journalists bear enormous responsibility. Politicians, journalists and the general public are always linked. Particularly given that politicians often do not respond until there is pressure from the public. As journalists we should have – and could have – given people a wake-up call sooner.


In the meantime the German government has categorised EnergyEfficiency as a key issue for the attainment of its climate protection objectives. However, in the package of laws for the energy revolution, this question has once again been marginalised. Why do we make such heavy weather of this?

Alt: When it comes to climate protection, saving energy is the “sleeping giant”. Let‘s just consider the numerous homes built in Germany before the 1950s. Most of the energy escapes through the windows, walls, doors, floors and roofs instead of heating the rooms. And yet every year only one percent of these buildings is renovated to conserve energy. At the current rate this means it will take a hundred years until the last one is renovated. But we don‘t have that much time. Chancellor Merkel said it herself at the Hanover trade fair: Technologies aimed at EnergyEfficiency will create at least 850,000 new jobs by 2020. For small and medium-sized businesses EnergyEfficiency is a driving force behind employment.


And yet, whether we now call for new high-efficiency gas-fired power plants or for renewable energy – the issue here is always generating more energy. Why is the question of EnergyEfficiency not discussed with the same passion?

Alt: We journalists do not pay tribute to the true importance of efficiency either. And why not? Efficiency isn‘t sexy. I am a television journalist: I know what impression pictures make. In my presentations I too always show photos of smart solar panel factories and wind farms because they look more exciting in terms of aesthetic landscaping and architectural design. I make people realise that this is how they want to live. However, an old building that has been renovated to use 80 percent less energy will look exactly the same as before. And that‘s the prime yet decisive aspect here: EnergyEfficiency doesn‘t look spectacular.


Wind turbines are therefore beacons for green electricity. What could beacons for EnergyEfficiency look like then?

Alt: I unfortunately don‘t have any patent remedies here either. Einstein once said that people nowadays only use at most ten percent of their brains. If our generation managed to increase this to eleven percent of our brainpower, it would already be a big step forward. By this I mean that the key word here is probably “energy intelligence”. We need to point out to people the stupidity of wasting energy. And all this is also a question of basic political conditions.


Many politicians however want to leave the economical use of energy to free market forces.

Alt: The market is ecologically blind, just like it is in social and ethical terms. Responsible policy should correct what the market alone is unable to regulate. A social market economy according to Ludwig Erhard always involves creating a suitable regulatory framework.


However, when it is a question of using energy efficiently as in the case of the planned EU Efficiency Directive, people soon start talking about an “energy saving diktat”. But we otherwise uncomplainingly submit to countless regulations such as the restrictions on fine dust emissions from cars. How come?

Alt: Yes, it‘s absurd. There are over 130,000 articles making up German tax law alone. The same people who usually lay down the law about everything suddenly start making a noise about “environmental dictatorship”. Ignorance and a lack of information are to blame for this.


What incentive systems and control mechanisms do you consider to be suitable here?

Alt: Incentives alone are not enough. The Renewable Energy Act for example is the world‘s most intelligent instrument in this field. And yet photovoltaics accounts for just three percent of our electricity. The politicians therefore also have to step in here with regulations. We need to set a new system-based course for the future. In my opinion, nothing could encourage people more to act sensibly on a sustainable basis than a moderate tax on emissions. Anyone causing pollution should be made to pay for it. That will speed up the switchover. The state should increase the price of energy: hitting people in the pocket will make them change their attitude to energy faster than any appeal to reason. This has been demonstrated throughout the course of political history. A tax on petrol, coupled with rising oil prices, could prompt a swing towards cars offering greater fuel economy. Provided that the population isn‘t hoping that the next government will abolish such measures again.


Given all this it is incredibly important for consumers to grasp the ecological consequences. When I know that a litre of petrol pollutes 10,000 litres of air, I realise that this fuel is far too cheap. When I learn that we now use in one year as much coal, gas and oil as produced by Nature over 500,000 years, I see why energy should become more expensive. As soon as I start to see the connections, I recognise the problems involved and am open to solutions.


In your eyes what would the future look like for energy if we manage things successfully?

Alt: It depends on the two big environmental issues: EnergyEfficiency and renewable energies. The switch to renewable energies will fail if we don‘t take EnergyEfficiency just as seriously. The more energy we consume, the longer it will of course take us to switch over 100 percent. But if we make good use of the potential for savings, complete switchover to renewables by 2030 is a realistic prospect  in Germany and Europe. I would like to give you an example illustrating to what extent this depends on the will of the politicians. This year Saxony-Anhalt is getting 52 percent of its electricity from wind power, and the state has no coastline. It does have plenty of wind like Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, but there wind only accounts for 0.8 percent of electricity. For me it is a question of structure here. With our large offshore wind farms and miles of electricity cables criss-crossing the country, are we upholding the old system of a centralised energy economy?


Or do we organise our energy supply on a decentralised basis, generating and storing energy at localised sites? In other words, local energy for each region. This would be entirely in line with Christian social ethics with its subsidiarity principle. A society that has switched its power supply entirely over to renewable energy needs countless farmers and landowners with forest, numerous small and medium-sized businesses as well as tens of thousands of skilled craftsmen and millions of homeowners who are willing to install solar panels on their roofs and high-efficiency pumps in their cellars. They would all stand to benefit from such structural change, with the loser being the energy industry in its current form. This is why we should adopt the following motto for the energy revolution: “Citizens: Look to the sun for freedom”.


Nowadays virtually nothing works in politics without a lobby. Where is the lobby for EnergyEfficiency?

Alt: The construction industry also depends on renovating buildings to conserve energy to an ever-increasing extent. It however needs to get out there and lobby more.


“Stop moaning and at last take action!” is your demand for new ethical values. What does that look like?

Alt: I believe that an ecological revolution will only succeed if we develop a system of environmental ethics that doesn‘t merely talk about responsibility for future generations, but embraces it wholeheartedly. If we only think in the scale of our lifetime, our children are going to curse us one day.


This means EnergyEfficiency stopped just being a question of ecology and economy long ago, but now also has an ethical dimension to it?

Alt: You see the environmental politician Hermann Scheer gave his last book the title “Der energethische Imperativ” (in English “The Energetic Imperative”). But here he spelt “energethisch” with a “th”, so incorporating in it the German word “ethisch” meaning “ethical”. By this he emphasised that the challenge we face with the issue of energy is not technical but moral in nature. The technical problems can be solved, and some have already been dealt with.


The million-dollar question is now: Do we still have responsibility for future generations? You see, we have been talking about energy problems for half an hour. But we don‘t really have any problems with energy on this planet. Every day the sun sends us 15,000 times more energy than the entire world consumes. There is just the wrong approach to energy, and we can change that. The energy revolution will not work without ethics.


If you were the German Chancellor or Minister of the Environment, what would be the first thing you would tackle?

Alt: I‘d make EnergyEfficiency more attractive in order to bring into line the two big environmental issues, i.e. EnergyEfficiency and renewable energies. The EU is leading with a good example here: From 2012 all public buildings will be designed according to the zero-energy scale, and from 2020 it will not be permitted to build houses that run on “old” fossil fuels. I would therefore promptly rewrite the German building regulations to make them more green. Modern houses with oil heating systems are old hat and not the way forward here.

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