Shifting Gears

New Internationalist magazine, June 2001


Sunshine sketches

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.

Hydrogen hopes

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.

Oceans away

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'.

Wind farming

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.

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