Sunday, May 1, 2011

Go for green options

Only pettiness stands in the way of safe and sound development of renewable energies.

RECENT events have sharpened the focus on a chilling scenario spooking the international community.

Turmoil in several oil-rich West Asian countries, with the triple whammy of Japan’s 9-point earthquake, tsunami and radiation fallout from Fukushima’s nuclear plant, set against escalating crude oil prices augur badly for the world’s economies.

The common factor is ever-increasing demand for energy. Today’s world is so different in that almost every aspect of our lives requires energy.

As populations increase and technology advances, we need increasing amounts of cheap and abundant energy. The most common sources are fossil fuels, typically oil, gas (LNG) and coal.

Unfortunately, these are not getting cheaper or more abundant. Prices of crude oil escalated more than five-fold in the past two decades.

There are of course other sources like time-tested hydroelectric power. There is also energy from the sun (solar-thermal and photo-voltaic), and wind, geothermal, tidal and wave sources, and more esoteric sources like organic waste or methane.

But nuclear is unclear. Yet, somehow untold resources have been spent on nuclear energy. Why people choose to go the nuclear road is unclear. It is definitely not cerebral.

It is expensive, dangerous and poses a multitude of unanswered questions, chief amongst which is the disposal of hazardous by-products.

The United States has upwards of 70,000 tonnes of nuclear waste planned for storage in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, but now that is over. There is no long-term storage site for the accumulating highly toxic waste hazardous to life for thousands of years or more.

Deep suspicions prevail that world energy supply and demand are closely linked to control, dominance and hegemony among nations. Countries that control energy supply for the rest of the world hold sway over lesser nations.

Take fossil fuels. For much of the past century, economically dominant countries were those which controlled energy supply, e.g. large stocks of oil/natural gas/coal, either as their own natural resource or under their control in “client” countries with compliant governments.

Unfortunately fossil fuels are fast disappearing and becoming more expensive to extract. Nuclear was thus introduced some 70 years ago despite ever-present radiation dangers.

Why? It was by then known that fossil fuels were not a dependable energy source as they were non-renewable.
It was then decided to harness energy from nuclear reactors. Besides, some of the by-products also had military applications (e.g. depleted uranium shells the US used in Iraq and Libya).

While other energy sources such as hydro, solar, wind and geo-thermal are more site- or country-specific and so allow less developed nations to be independent of dominant countries, this would not sit well with the world’s existing power equation.
Even within the nuclear energy lobby, there are two schools: the uranium and the thorium. The safer thorium model was discovered about a decade after the uranium model but was not fully developed.

One of the reasons was that by then massive amounts of money and human resources had been used to develop the more dangerous model. Much lobbying was done for the uranium model at the expense of the thorium model by developed nations such as the United States, Russia and Britain.

Lately both China and India have started developing the safer model. Yet however safe the thorium model, it is still nuclear and thus less safe than renewable sources of energy.

Germany is a developed, technology-savvy country that has decided to abandon nuclear power altogether, while less developed countries still hanker after it. There is the saying that fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

To understand energy supply and demand, we must acknowledge that the fundamental energy source is the sun. The Egyptians worshipped Ra the Sun God centuries ago when they were at the peak of world civilisation.

To derive energy from the sun would be getting energy almost directly from the mother source without resorting to other more complicated, dangerous, costly and outlandish models.

Some may oppose solar energy or any other renewable energy source. They may do so out of ignorance or some hidden agenda.

They would say that solar energy is expensive and not well developed. That is not true; we have lived with solar heaters in our homes for years.

Many countries have solar farms generating electricity from photovoltaic cells. Today, China produces the world’s largest number of photovoltaic panels for industrial and home applications.

With the life cycle of the mobile phone as an example, the advances we can expect to see in photovoltaic energy generation will be just as dramatic. Energy from the sun will be cheap, clean, renewable, efficient and ubiquitous within the next decade.

Wind energy is now more widely used and more sophisticated than many expect. Britain now has wind turbines producing 1.3 gigawatts, with plans to construct 400 more turbines.

We in Malaysia have had hydroelectric dams long before independence. China’s state-of-the-art Three Gorges Dam producing hydroelectricity is the world’s largest.

Yet some people still push for nuclear reactors. After the accidents in Three Mile Island in the United States in the 1970s, Chernobyl in Russia in the 1980s and today’s Fukushima, it is difficult to understand those who are still pro-nuclear.

very time an accident happens, promises are made that it would be the last, as more stringent designs would be incorporated. Why then Chernobyl and now Fukushima?

Will Fukushima be the last? Very unlikely. There are nuclear reactors built on California’s fault lines just waiting for another Fukushima to happen.

Those who still seek the nuclear option are certainly not the brightest. Would these misguided souls volunteer to join the brave “Fukushima Fifty”, fighting radioactive spillage on site?

It is not that we lack alternatives to nuclear energy. We have a vast number of alternatives.

It is not that we find nuclear cheaper, it is definitely not – Britain has declared that it is scrapping future nuclear plans simply because they would be too expensive with extra safety measures designed into them following the Fukushima disaster.

Sunlight is free and freely available; wind is free and easily accessible. Geothermal energy is freely bubbling from hot springs and easily used to drive turbines, water runs down hills and mountains giving us hydroelectricity.

Waves and tides have been around since life began. These energy sources staring us in the face are so obvious, yet we choose to ignore them for the dangerous, expensive and non-renewable options.

Any argument against developing alternative, green and safe energies, coupled with continued lobbying for nuclear, will be a classic example of gross irresponsibility. It will also reinforce “politics in power and power in politics”.

There are people who believe that the world is flat; that what happened in Fukushima is because the Japanese were not environment friendly, or were not green enough, but these are “fringe” people who probably smoke some powerful stuff.

Then there are those who do so because of politics. Imagine a world where energy is abundantly and cheaply available for everyone.

The world order as we know it today will stand on its head. No one would go to war for oil, yet some countries could still go to war to prevent this change in world order.

source: The star

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