New Internationalist magazine, June 2001
Solar energy has been revitalized by the recent upswing in
oil prices. Some experts now predict the cost of solar photovoltaics
(PVs) which convert sunlight into electricity will plunge eight-fold
in the next twenty years. In many areas the price of solar energy
has been cut by half over the past decade and the sector has grown
by 17 per cent a year.
Greenpeace estimates that PVs are still five times more expensive
than if they were mass-produced. A study by the consulting firm
KPMG found PV technology could become competitive by tripling
world sales to 500 megawatts per year. Greenpeace says this would
cost a mere half per cent of the $89 billion spent by oil companies
on exploration for new oil and gas in 1998.
PV technology is exploding in the South where it is cheaper
than building expensive centrally run grids - 85 per cent of US
photovoltaics are exported, mostly to the Third World. Indonesia,
for example, has installed more than 36,000 rural solar systems.
The big fear is corporate control of this inherently decentralized
technology. BP Solarex has cornered 20 per cent of the world market
with annual sales of more than $200 million.
The source with the most revolutionary potential is hydrogen.
Even dyed-in-the-wool oil advocates admit that the arrival of
the hydrogen economy is not a matter of 'if' but 'when'.
The chemistry of hydrogen energy is relatively simple.The
device at its heart, the hydrogen membrane) fuel cell, was invented
by the Welsh physicist William R Grove back in 1839. The fuel
cell is like a continually electrochemical regenerating battery
which chemically combines hydrogen and air to produce an electric
current which can then be used to power an electric Fuel (hydrogen)
motor. The only waste it produces is pure water. Sound too good
to be true?
Well, it is. But only just. Recent engineering advances have
moved the hydrogen fuel cell to within a whisker of commercial
production. According to the Worldwatch Institute more than 85
organizations are now doing research on fuel-cell technology.
Most of the effort is being put into adapting hydrogen energy
for transport. And rightly so. The explosion of cars and trucks
around the world is the fastest-growing source of carbon emissions
which are threatening the global climate. There are already more
than 500 million cars on the world's roads, all pumping out smog-generating
toxic fumes and deadly carbon dioxide.
The big auto makers are already into hydrogen in a major way.
DaimlerChrysler has a $500 million deal with Canadian fuel-cell
pioneer, Ballard Power, to develop fuel-cell engines. Demonstration
hydrogen-fuelled buses are now on the road in Vancouver and Chicago.
Mass production is scheduled to start in 2005. Toyota and Honda
hope to launch fuel-cell cars within the next few years.
But it's tiny Iceland that's leading the way. The country
is determined to build the world's first hydrogen economy and
has pledged to switch its buses, trucks, cars and even its fishing
boats to hydrogen power within 40 years. Iceland intends to make
the hydrogen using hydro-electricity to split water into oxygen
and hydrogen, thus completely breaking the link to fossil fuels.
If you can use 'green' energy to produce hydrogen then you can
say goodbye to hydro-carbon fuels for ever. But for others that
is still a key issue. Ballard Power and the big car companies
think hydrogen derived from methanol is the ticket. Others think
natural gas is the most logical bridge since it has the highest
hydrogen-to-carbon ratio. Hydrogen would be produced by means
of a 'reformer', a device which combines natural gas and water
at high temperatures to produce carbon dioxide and hydrogen. But
the ultimate solution - and the only one that will solve the carbon
pollution problem in the long run - is to create hydrogen from
the electrolysis of water using electricity produced from renewables
like the sun and the wind.
Big dams create big headaches. So why not capture power from
the natural movements of the sea? New technological developments
mean we may soon be able to trap the vast energy of ocean tides
to generate electrical power. Sea water is 832 times as dense
as air and an 8 knot ocean current has the kinetic energy of a
390 km/h wind.
Blue Energy Systems of Vancouver estimates its Davis Hydro
Turbines can produce 180 times more power than wind or solar technologies
in the same area. The giant underwater 'windmills' are price competitive,
superefficient and non-polluting. They've been tested and the
company says the slow-moving blades pose little danger to marine
life and allow water and silt to flow freely.
Blue Energy is working on a four km 'tidal fence' in the Philippines
across the San Bernardino Strait from Luzon to Samar. The turbines
will generate 2.2 gigawatts of power. The company is also exploring
ocean energy resources around Vancouver Island operation with
British Columbia Hydro and claims that the region has ocean-energy
resources 'akin to a Saudi Arabian oil field'.
Before the era of cheap fossil fuels, it was the norm to see
windmills scattered across the countryside pumping water and powering
grain mills. Now windmills are a growth industry again - this
time producing pollution free electricity. Wind power is one of
the fastest-growing forms of green energy, averaging a 2l per-cent
annual increase in the l990s. In some parts of the US, farmers
are finding they can supplement their earnings by renting out
land to power companies to install large-scale wind turbines.
The world's biggest installation opened in 1999 in Storm Lake,
Iowa: 257 turbines sprinkled across more than 100 farms with each
farmer earning about $2,000 a year. Denmark, a pioneer in the
field, currently gets 8 per cent of its electricity from wind
while Germany gets 10 per cent and Spain gets 25 per cent of their
electricity in the same way. In the Third World, India is the
windpower leader but Worldwatch notes that China could easily
double its total electricity generation from this source.