Energy Rush: How Will We Power the Future? While Escalating Instability in the Middle East Highlights the Danger of Our Reliance on Fossil Fuels, the Race to Find a Cheap, Sustainable Energy Source Hots Up. (Renewable Energy)

Article excerpt

THE PLANET CRAVES A NEW SUPERPOWER, AN ALL-conquering energy source that can finally replace our slavish, destructive addiction to oil. And this time it has to be renewable. Escalating political uncertainty in the oil-rich Middle East, combined with long-standing environmental concerns and greater acceptance of the finite nature of fossil-fuel reserves, has accelerated the race to locate a fresh, sustainable source of energy.

One only needs to glance at the list of government conferences and energy reviews scheduled across the world this year to realise the struggle to solve our energy crisis has truly started. This month ministers and energy delegates will gather in Scotland to discuss how business can profit from the expanding market for wind and wave power at the expense of coal and nuclear energy. The international All-Energy Opportunities Exhibition and Conference in Aberdeen will inform policy advisors that up to two-thirds of Europe's electricity needs can come from wind by 2020. It follows the Global Alternative Fuels Forum in Germany, which heard that geopolitical concerns -- 70 per cent of the world's oil reserves are in the Middle East -- coupled with high fuel costs and taxation levels guarantee that renewable energy will be L commonplace across the world in five years. In Europe the value of the offshore wind market, currently around 35million [pounds sterling] in Britain, is forecast to rise to 6billion [pounds sterling] by 2006, while that of onshore projects will reach 1billion [pounds sterling] by 2010. Meanwhile, reserves of oil and gas dwindle, with official figures indicating the former will struggle to supply our needs for another 30 years.

Action is essential, and for once environmentalists and economists agree. Governments are in no doubt that we have begun the debate about how we intend to live our lives beyond 2030. After all, energy remains the fundamental driving force of modern civilisation.

Simple solution

Our objectives are clear: establish a secure energy supply, relieve our dependence on Middle Eastern oil reserves (of which Saudi Arabia holds a quarter), and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent in the next decade. Environmentalists argue that the solution is simple: move away from the polluting, finite energy supplies, namely oil, gas and coal. Not only would this create economic stability by disentangling Western states from the chief owners of current fuel reserves, but it would ensure that governments create a new strategy based on sustainability.

Yet the powerful oil lobby points towards new discoveries near the Falkland Islands and southern Chad, reminding us of claims by the US National Intelligence Council that 80 per cent of the world's oil and 95 per cent of its gas remain underground. But this is missing the point. The most recent findings of Britain's computerised global climate predictor strengthen the concern that we will exhaust the planet's ability to absorb fossil fuel by-products before we run out of oil to burn. The timing could not be better to shift towards post-carbon energy technology.

All three major European states face different choices. Britain has frittered away its North Sea windfall, Germany needs to replace the gas contracts it made with the Soviet Union in the 1960s, while in the next decade France has to close the nuclear reactors that provide 80 percent of its electricity.

At present six per cent of European and eight per cent of US energy comes from renewable sources. This stems partly from the fact that while technologies to exploit energy sources such as wind, sun and biomass are developing fast, none can compete effectively with the convenience, cost and efficiency of fossil fuels. Moreover, some experts contest that sustainable energy can only meet a portion of projected demand. Another obstacle that cannot be underestimated is a lack of political will and the noncommittal energy policies of the major states. …