Using knowledge to beat monopolies of power
One book in particular shaped the course of Uwe Leprich’s impressive career. “Rationalising energy use will provide far more energy in the next decades than nuclear power can, even if we really force nuclear development.” Leprich lights up with enthusiasm when he quotes the author, Klaus Traube, an erstwhile nuclear industry manager who was involved in the controversial Kalkar fast breeder reactor in North Rhine-Westphalia. Years before it was revealed that the German intelligence services had been spying on him, Traube switched camps and became an environmental researcher. In 1982, he published the book “Billiger Atomstrom?” (“Cheap Nuclear Power?”). “Traube plucked the Federal Government’s extremely amateurish energy programme to pieces. I was very impressed. I realised that I wanted to specialise in that field and to gain as deep an understanding of the material as possible,” Leprich says.
This strong thirst for truth and knowledge is the key to Leprich’s character – and to his success. Today, he is one of the few German scientists with an overview of the entire energy system. The professor of economics at HTW des Saarlandes, University of Applied Sciences, Saarbrucken is also scientific director of the Institut für Zukunftsenergiesysteme (IZES) and spokesperson of the Renewable Energy Research Association (FVEE), which comprises 12 German research institutes that together account for 80 percent of the renewable energies academics in Germany. Leprich’s views on the switch to renewables are well respected. He expresses his opinions in his research and teaching, as an advisor to ministries and associations, and as the author of a large number of studies and position papers. He also writes a regular column for neue energie.
“A scientific analysis may be brilliant, but you have to put it into practice,” Leprich says. His talent for shaping policy, without simply following the mainstream, became apparent at an early age. “I set up a political group at school. We ran a school newspaper and our aim was to expose problems and generally to get people thinking,” the 54-year-old native of eastern Westphalia recalls. He says that the era of former Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt (“Let’s risk more democracy!”) had a great influence on him. Leprich also became interested in energy at a young age. “I understood intuitively that the energy supply, as an important part of our infrastructure, should not be dominated by monopolistic structures,” he explains. Given these political views, he was never going to become a fan of nuclear power. Earlier generations of experts – including people such as Klaus Traube or Fraunhofer researcher Jürgen Schmid, who died in May – only changed track during their careers, but Leprich realised straight away that the potential dangers of nuclear power were far too great. “Obviously I wore one of those ‘Nuclear power ? No thanks’ badges back in the day,” he says with a smile.
He stopped wearing the badge at some stage, but stayed true to energy, deciding to concentrate on this field while he was studying economics in Bielefeld. “I wanted to get to the top in a field, so I thought about what topics interested me and quickly decided on the energy sector. As I mentioned, Traube’s book tipped the balance for me.” While he was looking at his options, Leprich soon heard about the Freiburg-based Oeko-Institut, which was set up in 1977. “They had a working group on the switch to renewables, the legendary Working Group IV. I got in touch with the institute and found out that they had an opening in the energy section for someone doing civilian service. This was a lucky coincidence, as I had 18 months of civilian service ahead of me. I was a conscientious objector, but my application to do civilian service instead of military service was only accepted on my third attempt. I started working at Oeko-Institut in 1986, two-and-a-half months after the Chernobyl disaster,” Leprich recalls. The institute had emerged from the anti-nuclear movement.
Leprich’s role involved coordinating Working Group IV and assisting with research and studies. Above all, his work gave him the opportunity to meet the leading figures from the renewables movement. The institute was a great place for making contacts, and Leprich got his first real job there. “I was appointed as a part-time research assistant in 1987. This gave me the chance to become a specialist on least-cost planning.” This concept comes from the US and the idea is that suppliers should support efficiency. “At the time, municipal utilities began distributing energy-saving bulbs or vouchers for energy-efficient fridges. I was fascinated by the comparison between energy supply and efficiency in economic terms. You could prove that efficiency was cheaper than supply. And that raised questions about the legal parameters, that is, why we weren’t doing something that made sense.” Leprich had got the bit between his teeth, and wrote his doctorate on this subject.