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close this bookDiversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature (IDRC, 1995, 234 p.)
close this folder9. Clean energy for planetary survival
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe industrial revolution
View the documentThe use of hydroelectricity
View the documentThe age of petroleum
View the documentNuclear power
View the documentThe clean options

The clean options

The increase in energy consumption during the 20th century has been rapid. Between 1900 and 1989, energy use grew from 21 to 318 exajoules. Of this energy, about 88% comes from burning fossil fuels (Gibbons et al. 1989); the rest is obtained principally from nuclear and hydroelectric power. This distribution is the result of a general strategy based on fluid fuels, which was considerably shaken by the oil crisis of the early 1970s.

Today, well into the 1990s, the energy future of the planet is being looked at in a different light. Oil is becoming more difficult to find but, because it is easy to extract, transport, and use, it remains the main source of energy. Coal is easier to find, but “messy” to extract. In the long term, the main problem is that neither of these fuels is renewable and their volume is limited locally, regionally, and globally. In addition, their manipulation and use are environmentally “unfriendly” and risky.

Nuclear power is expensive and hazardous, as the problem of nuclear waste has not yet been solved. Hydropower has allowed growth of energy production in some areas, but has been identified as the cause of degradation of many river ecosystems, social dislocation of local communities, altered geological dynamics, and increased seismicity. The Brazilian alternative of alcohol from sugarcane is a renewable, easy-touse energy source; however, its sustainability is doubtful.

A different approach altogether may be necessary. The world’s “hard-path” supply policies are leading to a dead end. According to Bott et al. (1983):

The desirable energy path is surely one of least risk (as distinct from least cost) for any given benefit... you will “never freeze in the dark” if you live in a super-insulated house and keep a few candles handy; you certainly run that risk if you live in a leaky house totally dependent on a distant nuclear power station.

It appears now that a different, softer strategy is possible. This new strategy can and must be based in large measure on renewable and cleaner sources of energy. Inexpensive solar energy can satisfy the energy needs of large numbers of homes and small industrial plants throughout the planet. Although insufficiently used, its potential is widely recognized. Wind energy is being harnessed locally, but its utilization could be expanded. Currently, a few wind farms represent an interesting attempt to explore the feasibility of using this energy source on a larger scale. There have also been attempts to tap the energy of tides, waves, and geothermal sources. There are many other potential clean sources of energy that could be further explored and developed (for a discussion of sustainable energy strategies, see Goldenberg et al. 1988). If new strategies consider these alternatives, it will be possible to reduce considerably the need for environmentally unfriendly energy resources.

One of the easiest ways to deal with the energy problem is to develop policies aimed at reducing consumption. In most countries, energy consumption is too high and wasteful, houses are not insulated, heating water takes much more energy that it should, urban transportation by cars instead of public transportation is inefficient, large volumes of water are released unused from some hydroelectric dams while other unnecessary hydroelectric projects are being built nearby, and pricing policies often promote wasteful behaviour rather than conservation.

Appropriate changes in technology and associated policies could radically alter the current situation: cars are becoming more economical, houses are better insulated, the use of solar energy is slowly increasing in some areas of the world, and pricing policies are being based on more conservationist principles.

Finally, there is growing awareness that energy cannot be isolated from the general model of societies. Social organization and energy strategies are two aspects of a whole. Development models must be sustainable, both in the short term and in the long term, and deal concurrently with socioeconomic and energy issues. A sustainable model must include not only energy production, adequate pricing policies, and well-conceived energy-producing systems, but also appropriate urban planning, sustainable basin management, and a holistic socioeconomic vision in the formulation and implementation of policies. Potential sources of clean energy are plentiful; if imagination and political will are applied systematically, there will be no reason to fear the future.