The known world has already been through three pivotal epochs: the agricultural, industrial and information-technology revolutions. Now, a fourth is taking place: the renewable-energy revolution.
At least that is how the German director Carl Fechner presents it in his documentary film, “The 4th Revolution — Energy Autonomy,” which shows some of the many projects worldwide now generating electricity entirely from natural sources. The film opened in Tokyo on Dec. 17 and will be shown at other cinemas in the capital until Jan. 27. Afterward, further screenings are planned around the country.
Back in October, when 58-year-old Fechner was in Japan for the film’s premiere here, at the Goethe Institut Japan in Tokyo, he was all smiles as he told The Japan Times in an interview how “The 4th Revolution” has already been seen by more than 200,000 people in Germany since it was released in March 2010.
Explaining that the film’s title implies no less than a total global shift to generating all power from completely renewable sources, Fechner continued, saying, “Part of the fourth revolution are the technical things, but the biggest change is the structure of economy. Our life (facilitated by energy) has been centralized, but we should decentralize it: Everybody should be responsible for their own energy production.”
To emphasize how this is no pipedream, the director pointed to his own country, Germany, where the government has set an official target of generating half the nation’s power requirements from renewable sources by 2020 — up significantly from the 20 percent it generates today. However, that 20 percent had originally been the target for 2020.
With a similar commitment to that powering Germany’s shift, Fechner said the world could be generating all its electricity from renewable sources within 30 years.
As for nuclear power, Fechner pointed to the huge effect the ongoing disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant had in Germany, where — just four days after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 that triggered the nuclear crisis — Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered seven reactors to be shut down immediately. Then in May the government took the decision to close all the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022. Had the Fukushima crisis not occurred, Fechner said, those decisions would not have been taken.
As for Japan itself, Fechner said that though his heart had gone out to all the disaster victims and survivors, he had been relieved to see how the nation’s electricity supply has been virtually uninterrupted despite only seven of its 54 reactors being set to remain operational by Christmas, with the rest offline for repairs, regular checks or safety inspections (as is now, indeed, the case).
He also pointed out how, “In your country, the government and the power companies had said nuclear power, which supplies about 30 percent of the electricity, was necessary. But the nuclear reactors have stopped since Fukushima. So you can now see how big their lie was.”
However, the film director noted a considerable contrast between Japan and Germany, where citizens’ movements have been resisting the civil or military use of nuclear power since the 1970s, and many protesters have been arrested.
Fechner said he joined that movement in 1983. “I took part in barricading to stop the transportation of nuclear fuels and I was arrested,” he said.
Around that time in what was then West Germany, peace and environmental activists founded the country’s Green Party in order to bring their concerns into mainstream politics. Though the party struggled to win votes in the 1980s, Fechner recounted with clear delight how, in 1998, the Green Party did so well in federal elections that it was able to form a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party of Germany — the so-called Red Party.
He then went on to outline how, in 2000, the Red-Green coalition’s Renewable Energy Act went into law. Among its key provisions, he said, was the establishment of a Feed-in Tariff system, which obliges utility companies to buy all the power generated from renewable energy sources at fixed premium prices. As a result, the renewable-energy sector was made attractive to investors, who were ensured a reasonable return and so contributed to the spread of renewable-energy generation.
“This a was very important decision,” the director emphasized. “Because of the fixed prices for 20 years, many people started generating power from various renewable sources. Personally, I own three solar-power plants,” he said. “I had no money for the investment, but banks lent me it.”
Indeed, because German society as a whole, both civil and official, has invested billions in renewable-energy generation, the industry there has grown three times faster than expected, and now employs some 500,000 people, Fechner said.
In “The 4th Revolution,” the director introduces several individuals who have been active in the renewable-energy field in Germany and elsewhere. One is Hermann Scheer (1944 -2010), a politician from the Social Democratic Party of Germany who worked on drafting the Renewable Energy Act and promoted natural energy sources both at home and abroad.
The film also takes viewers to Los Angeles with Scheer, who points to glass windows covering high-rises and argues that they should be replaced by solar panels.
“I am convinced that anyone who has understood that the possibility of changing to 100 percent renewables exists — and why it is necessary now — will never get it out of their head again,” Scheer comments on the film’s website.
Meanwhile, another German who appears in the film is Matthias Willenbacher, the founder of Juwi Holding AG, a company which operates renewable-energy facilities worldwide and employs around 1,400 people. In fact, even its energy-saving, renewably fueled headquarters building in Rhinehessen generates more power than it consumes.
But renewable-energy generation is not a preserve of the developed world, and far from it, as “The 4th Revolution” shows.
In Bangladesh, for example, the film highlights how the micro-lending Grameen Bank, founded in 1983 by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, has been able to fund 400,000 mini solar systems in rural homes by lending to households at a very low interest rate.
Worldwide, Fechner said, there are as many as 2 billion people who have no access to electricity and also need mini power sources. “Decentralizing the system of power generation and supply solves the problem,” he said.
In Japan, power generation, transmission and sales are dominated by 10 big electricity companies. However, long-dormant debates on separating entities involved in power generation from ones handling transmission have become heated since the Fukushima crisis.
In Germany, too, power generation and transmission used to be concentrated in the hands of giant utility companies, and this made it difficult for renewable-energy suppliers to access the utilities’ high-cost grid networks, Fechner said. However, when the Feed-in Tariff system was introduced into law in 2000, that problem was overcome and renewable-energy generators were given a massive boost.
Referring to Japan’s abundant potential for solar-, wind- and marine-energy generation, and also to its advanced technologies, Fechner said it is time the electricity market here was reformed, too. In particular, he called for Japan to shift its electricity sourcing away from nuclear power and fossil fuels to renewable-energy sources, and in so doing realize a safe and eco-friendly society.
“The technologies are ready. What you need now is to make the decision to start the process of spreading renewable energies,” he urged.
“The 4th Revolution — Energy Autonomy” is showing now and through Dec. 30 at the Human Trust Cinema Shibuya, in Tokyo. Afterward, it will play at other theaters in Tokyo until Jan. 27, prior to screenings around the country. In various languages, with Japanese subtitles. For more information, visit www.4revo.org/theater.