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Raffique Shah


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Renewable energy the wave of the future

October 16, 2005
By Raffique Shah

AS we wallow in oil-and-gas dollars, and with our coffers overflowing to the point where Prime Minister Patrick Manning could present a $30-billion Budget with many more billions left in "reserve", readers may wonder why I chose to address the seemingly irrelevant issue of alternative energy. Because outside of the Government addressing poverty alleviation and the prospect of some hikes in the price of petroleum and gas (hence electricity rates, too), with our natural endowment of hydrocarbons, why worry about wind farms and solar energy?

Let me tell you why. I have already mentioned that one day fossil fuels will dry up. No one can say when, but experts give us at best another 50 years, or in a worst-case scenario, possibly less than that. What happens then? Many may simply shrug their shoulders and say: So what? I won't be around then. That is not only a myopic, selfish view, but it underscores what has been said of us, and that is that we are the greediest generation in history. We want it all for ourselves, we plan to leave nothing for our children and grandchildren, not to even mention those yet unborn, or of the world in another hundred years.

If our forebears had had a similar mindset, I'm not sure we'd be around today enjoying riding airplanes around the globe, every-man-Jack owning vehicles, electricity taken for granted (and cuss when you get an outage), living as we do in a consumer-driven world. Every gizmo that makes life for us easier has already been invented. The race now is to make things smaller. So we have "palm tops" that are replacing laptop computers, tiny cellphones with hundreds of features, televisions that you strap on as watches, even ID "chips" implanted in people's bodies.

But whatever technology may be able to deliver to us in the future, the critical factor for the proper functioning of the world as we know it remains energy. With this non-renewable resource being extracted and consumed at unprecedented levels, should we not be looking at alternatives? Again, this is where the "Third World mentality" has us lagging behind developed countries, and if we fail to act in a timely manner, we may in the process condemn future generations to the status quo we have endured for centuries.

In last week's column I mentioned several highly-developed parts of the world that are well into using renewable energy supplies. In fact, because gas and oil prices are soaring to the clouds (they have already gone through the roof!), suppliers of solar panels in California cannot meet demand for the product.

US President Bush has allocated a substantial sum of money for further exploration and exploitation of renewable energy sources. In Britain, they are not only harnessing wind and solar energy (albeit behind Germany), but they are experimenting with tidal energy. Where do we in the Caribbean fit into this future-without-oil-and-gas?

We should use our current windfall from oil and gas to position ourselves and our neighbours in the region where we can continue to enjoy energy almost in perpetuity. Capital investment for harnessing wind and solar energy is high, which is one reason why it never caught on big before this latest energy crisis. But now we have the money to do it. The entire Caribbean should use this crisis as a catalyst to drive us into investing in solar and wind energy. It will cost, but in another 20 years we'd be very happy we did. Both sources are inexhaustible, and their maintenance costs are very low. If Venezuelawere to tie in oil-aid to the Caribbean and South America with the recipient countries moving in this direction, the latter will, increasingly, use less and less oil, hence freeing up more for Venezuela to sell on the open market. It makes sense, not to add dollars.

With respect to transportation, gas will continue to be in demand. But even this barrier is being broken down by the use of energy generated by biomass. Ethanol, for example, made from renewable sources (cane, corn, cassava), is the new-age fuel, big in countries like Brazil and India. In very remote districts or vast countries with far-flung communities, biomass is already used for heating during winter, and as compost during summer.

In the tropics more so than in temperate countries, we have ready supplies of both sun and wind: if anything, in the Caribbean, we'll have to develop wind towers that can be taken down during storms (lest they unleash power surges!).

What bothers those of us who are closely monitoring global energy trends is the fact that the politicians in power and those who have authority are not even hinting at this critical change. And because they remain smug and silent, their people are woefully uninformed of the looming crisis of a world without fossil fuels.