Charlemagne: the Economist’s view on renewables as snake oil

Every week the Economist magazine has a column about Europe under the name “Charlemagne”, who was the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire stretching across Europe, which was neither holy, nor Roman nor an Empire, as Voltaire pointed out. So Charlemagne the Journalist in the Economist is not quite what he or she infers by using the name of an Emperor crowned by the Pope and later canonised. 

Last week’s offering “Let them burn snake oil” (the Economist 19 January 2008 page 37) calls renewable energy snake oil and seems to be written from the viewpoint that the European Union’s renewable energy policies will offer some of everyone’s favoured snake oil, to placate all the differing members of the Union. 

It is quite astonishing that Charlemagne designates renewable energy as snake oil. Snake oil was sold by travelling salesmen in the west of America as a cure all remedy; it would not only cure every disease that you had but would also make you attractive, live much longer, shoot straighter and ride faster. Usually it contained nothing more than alcohol and herbs for flavouring, although some concoctions also had arsenic inside. 

In fact renewable energy makes no such claim; generally all renewable energy does what it says on the tin. Solar panels provide heat, PV provides electricity as do wind turbines and none of this is in any way “snake oil”.  

Charlemagne complains that countries determined to subsidise “expensive” forms of green energy will be allowed to carry on. I am afraid that this modern journalist emperor is looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope; it is fossil fuel energy that is expensive, not renewable energy.  

The truth is those of us that who fossil fuel do not pay the true cost of it. We only pay the cosy of extracting the stuff and using it. We do not pay for the dirt and climate change problems that burning creates, because these are mostly suffered elsewhere. Anything for cheap energy is Charlemagne’s mantra.

I suppose that all emperors have a tendency to believe that the world revolves around their empire and anything outside it that they cannot lay their hands on is irrelevant, foolish and wrong. 

Charlemagne also criticises the way in which all types of expensive snake oil (as he sees it) will be encouraged by the European Union. I have news for Charlemagne; it is about time he came out of the first Millennium and into the third. If we are to alleviate climate change problems we need as many weapons as possible.

Armies do not have just one weapon with which to fight – they use many different weapons in many different situations. So must it be with energy policy. We have one set of weapons for microgeneration, another set for mass generation and many strategies in between. We do not know yet which are the most effective – there are doubts about biofuels and bio mass, for example, but we do know that solar panels (as Charlemagne claimed “much beloved by Germany” are also much beloved by Austria, Greece, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Italy and Spain in Europe, and not to mention Australia, South Korea, the United States of America (need I go on?).

Does Charlemagne think that these countries are simply indulging in a local technology to favour local industry? I think that he should have a grown up attitude to solar panels. I also think he should learn the difference between real medicine and snake oil. 

He (why do think I think Charlemagne is a “he”?) also criticises the fact that the European Energy package will have a long wish list and multiple goals, which he regards as “muddled”. I have explained why we need many weapons and if many different European states develop them, so much the better. We ought not to waste time looking for a mythical silver bullet when we need plenty of real weapons.  

Of course Charlemagne should understand that energy policy will always have multiple goals – one is the provision of energy, another is the alleviation of climate change, another is the reduction of pollution and another is energy security. Somewhere in the list of goals affordability should also appear, but it is not number one on the list.  

I am afraid Charlemagne’s advice to Europe “leaders really need to agree which objectives matter” is out of date and out of touch. European leaders ( I hold no candle for them but we have to write the truth) know what matters and they are trying to address the difficult and complex task of figuring out how to do it across many member states with conflicting national interests and who start from differing places. The debate now is about the detail, and rightly so; I think most of us in the third Millennium understand the principles involved.