May 8, 2011

Cassava News 98

Invoke Sun, Wind gods for satisfying energy needs

CASSAVA NEWS to follow The Economic Times .Recently, ET organised a workshop, Energy India 2011: Energy security, climate change and economic development , where it was stressed, inter-alia , that our government is facing tough challenges in meeting energy requirements in an environmentally-sustainable manner. This is true - there is a dire need for exploring sources of energy that are not fossil fuel-based since the latter cause climate change. Because of this concern, we are resorting to producing clean energy such as biofuel, nuclear, wind, solar and hydro power. It may be mentioned, considering world averages, that today , about 70% energy comes from fossil fuel, about 20% from hydro power, and of the remaining 10%, most either comes from nuclear plants and biofuel and an insignificant 0.5% from the sun or wind.

However, these percentages vary from country to country. For example , countries such as Japan, US, Canada, France and Germany produce a large percentage of nuclear power in their energy mix, while India produces a mere 2.5% nuclear energy of its total power production. In the context of choosing a clean energy policy, let us first examine the pros and cone of two forms of clean energies , viz nuclear and biofuel, which are accepted as clean energies. First, consider nuclear energy.

The recent nuclear disaster in Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan has again brought to the fore the harmful aspects of producing nuclear energy on living beings, business and industry , which belies all the talk of sustainable development. Ironically, it has happened in a technically-advanced country while making peaceful use of atomic energy that may prove worse than the havoc of destructive use of atomic energy in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. We had much higher nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl (Ukraine) in 1986 but never learnt the lesson on safety standards of nuclear plants.

Such big tragedies send shock waves in the corridors of power the world over. There is a catalogue of day-to-day leaks of radioactive steam from nuclear plants in all parts of the world that go unreported but are causing slow murder of millions of workers employed there as well as other citizens including people living in neighbouring countries. In India too, we had a small mishap at Narora nuclear plant in 1993, which might have been forgotten by many. Second, let us talk about production of biofuel as many developed countries have passed laws mandating greater use of non-fossil fuel. As a result, crops such as cassava, corn, palm oil and sugar are being diverted in great proportion for biofuel production. China and the US are cases in point.

While China imports 98% of cassava production from Thailand to produce biofuel, the US uses 16% of the world's corn supply - enough to feed 350 million people - to produce ethanol only to be burned in its SUVs. Al Gore , who once supported the policy of ethanol production, now calls it a mistake because the rush for biofuel is driving the food prices . The Food and Agriculture Organization ( FAO )) has asserted that food prices have gone up by 15% during October 2010-January 2011 alone, bringing additional 45 million people below poverty line. The soaring food prices are the cause of political turmoil in Algeria, Egypt and Bangladesh. My intention is not to make a case against production of nukes and biofuel .

However, in view of the above facts, it seems that we should focus more on producing clean energy from wind and sun, which are God's gift to us, and they are renewable sources of energy too. It is true that the cost of production of these energies is high because we do not have efficient technology to produce them on a large scale. To achieve this, we require large investment in R&D of these energies to which, unfortunately, we have not paid sufficient attention. According to scientists and researchers, we would probably need to invest about $100 billion annually for a few decades.

This is about 0.2% of the world's total GDP and is well within the capability of G20 nations that account for about 90% of world's GDP. If rich nations are really serious in saving the planet, some sacrifice needs to be made by them. This is the only way to reduce our dependence on fossil-based energy. The last four Conference of Parties - Bali (2007), Poznan (2008), Copenhagen (2009) and the latest at Cancun (2010) - have not achieved anything worthwhile . Whatever voluntary or legallybinding emission cuts are agreed to, these would be insufficient to keep the rise in global temperature below the threshold limit of 2° C set by the G20.

To sum up, clean and renewable solar and wind energy should constitute a major portion of total energy mix in future. Since, it is not going to happen soon, we should (a) take all safety measures in production of nuclear power by strengthening our laws, (b) take steps that ensure biofuel production does not create food shortage, and (c) enhance hydel power generation by resolving all social, cultural, territorial , livelihood and displacement issues that arise during implementation of projects. All this is relevant in India's context so that our economic growth is not disrupted. The ET seminar did address all these issues and I hope it would infuse innovative thinking for devising suitable clean energy policy by our government.

(The author is former director of the CSO and UN consultant on Environment and Poverty Alleviation)

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