The determining factor of an energy system is the energy sources it makes available. All subsequent steps follow on from this choice: the energy conversion technologies and infrastructure required for its optimal use, and the energy habits, social opportunities and types of business, as well as the settlement and transport structures which result from it. We need a sociological perspective taking in energy-related, technological and economic aspects in order to be able to understand the energy system of today and identify the consequences which will result from the impending historic changeover from fossil and atomic energies to renewables.
The impact that the existing atomic/fossil energy system has had on shaping society is particularly apparent in the world's two antithetical socio-cultural poles: the big cities of the industrialized societies on the one hand, and the rural areas of the Third World on the other. It was the fossil energy system which developed with the industrial revolution that paved the way for the growing megacities of the industrial modern age. Now that fossil energies are nearing exhaustion, the megacities are threatened with collapse, taking with them the cultural forms of civil society which have developed since the beginning of the modern era in the wake of enlightenment and secularization, the industrial society and democratization.
The widespread notion that the energy supply introduced in the industrialized countries represents the optimum in terms of energy management and hence should also serve as a role model for developing countries is sociologically unsound. It begins with the third step in the development of the energy system - that is to say after the choice of energy source and the technologies applied to use the energy - and regards this system's functional model as a constant and indispensable factor. New energy options are measured against this to see if they fit this well-tuned system. It is therefore seen as an incontrovertible truth, permitting no serious doubt as to its necessity and seeming to warrant no further justification.
Where future energy supply is concerned, however, everything necessarily and urgently points to the use of renewable energies. There is no getting away from the fact that fossil energy reserves will run out, as will uranium reserves. For the future, therefore, there are only two energy options: renewable energies or nuclear energy from fast breeder reactors (because the reprocessing of spent fuel elements and their use in such reactors can make the fissile material go further by around a factor of 60) as well as, in the future, from nuclear fusion reactors. The past has clearly shown, however, that the nuclear option is more a theoretical than a practicable solution. There is still no fast breeder reactor fit for purpose and in stable permanent operation today, despite the many billions spent on research and development. And whether or not a nuclear fusion reactor will ever become a reality is in the lap of the gods. In any event the costs are likely to be extremely high compared with present-day nuclear fission reactors, quite apart from the considerable additional safety and security risks they would pose both politically and ecologically.
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