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
worlds 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
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
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