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Raffique Shah


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Now even coconut oil is used as renewable energy

October 09, 2005
By Raffique Shah

A MAJOR dilemma developing countries like ours face is that we do not see ourselves as trail-blazers, as pioneers in any field of endeavour. Maybe it's a legacy of the hundreds of years we endured as victims of colonial domination. I have long maintained that after religion, colonialism had the greatest impact on its victims, to the extent that even among those who fought against the system, I personally found many who were steeped in its trappings without even knowing they were. However, many bright scholars we may have produced, the thinkers, the innovators, the inventors, we still see ourselves as followers, not leaders. The energy crisis that the world faces today gives us a unique opportunity to break out of this mould, but given our history, I don't hold much hope.

Fossil fuels-extracted from the earth and derived from the remains of living things-have been with us from the dawn modern society. Coal was king of this early period. But in the latter part of the 19th century, man discovered oil. In our own case, as far back as in 1866, Walter Darwent drilled the first successful oil well at Aripero, and by 1914 Trinidad was already producing one million barrels of crude oil annually. Many people don't know that back in 1959, Federation Chemicals was the first company to use natural gas on a commercial scale at its Savonetta ammonia plant. From around 1971, when natural gas was discovered off the North Coast, Dr Eric Williams pursued it with a passion (possibly one of the few occasions on which we were innovative).

From that period to this day, the country's economy has hinged heavily on oil and gas. Agriculture declined almost as revenues from energy sources climbed, and other sectors of the economy prospered or suffered as the price of crude oil went up and down. With relatively cheap fuel available to power our electricity requirements, it was almost heresy to think of alternative sources of energy like wind, solar and a host of newer ones that have since been explored. In fact -and people may laugh at this-in the poor Pacific islands of Fiji and Vanuatu, the much-maligned coconut oil is being mixed with kerosene (85/15 split) to be used instead of diesel. It is being actively pursued as a cheaper alternative in these countries that have tonnes of copra but no oil or gas.

Which brings me to where I left off last week: any fool can spend the money that flows from the oil and gas windfall that has virtually fallen into our laps, thanks mainly to Americans' insatiable appetite for energy. But it takes a wise man (or government) to plan for many generations to come, to look at the alternatives we can explore so that future generations can survive the decline of fossil fuels. I cited several experts in the business who see us (well, not me, but those who will be around then!) facing a world without oil. I add to the list Americans Matt Simmons, an investment banker. Simmons pointed to an immutable rule that governs energy: use cannot exceed usable supplies. At the moment the world is pumping three times as much oil as it's discovering (Houston Chronicle).

Since the 1980s, architect and patriot Colin Laird has been looking at the solar energy option. He was moved to produce a paper on it, citing among numerous examples, Sacramento County in California, where they were committed to an 800MW "Conservation Power Plant" and 400MW of renewable and advanced energy projects by the year 2000. Initially, the solar energy programme targeted hot water systems (Barbados is in the lead in the Caribbean in this respect), solar buildings, solar cooling and solar thermal and Photovoltaic electric generation. Laird also mentioned in his paper wind turbines. Last March, I happened to drive between Berlin and Poland, and was I shocked at the number of "wind farms" I saw. I mean this was Germany, one of the most industrialised countries in the world, and there they were, using wind power! Indeed, last year, in Wales, the British Energy Minister formally opened a plant designed to produce 11,000 solar units annually-hear this-for Germany!

In Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil producer, solar energy is used to power several water desalination plants, and more and more the country is harnessing its inexhaustible solar potential. Now, can anyone tell me why our poor-ass Caribbean neighbours, rather than depend solely on subsidised Venezuelan oil, cannot tap into wind and solar power? Indeed, I think that President Chavez would be doing them a favour by helping them with the capital required to undertake such projects. They are costly to establish, but once on stream, they require little maintenance or additional costs. They boast of "sun and sea", but they are not using the real power of both these natural endowments.