Magazine article Management Today

Earth Wind and Fire

Magazine article Management Today

Earth Wind and Fire

Article excerpt

Alternative sources of energy have moved beyond visionary and impractical dreams. But British research efforts still lag behind those of Japan and the US. By John Lamb

In California, farmers crop megawatts from the wind with the help of generators reminiscent of aircraft propellors. When the Japanese indulge their passion for hot tubs, the water they slip into is increasingly likely to have been warmed by solar cells or the heat bubbling up from the earth's core. Australians draw electricity from huge concrete caissons set in the sea, which tap energy from the rise and fall of the waves.

Alternative energy, once the preserve of tofu and kaftan types, is acquiring a glossy new image. After years as losers in the energy stakes, wind, wave and water power are increasingly big business.

International scares such as the Chernobyl disaster and the American drought, together with a global warming partly caused by the byproducts of the fossil fuels we burn, have done little for the public perception of conventional energy sources. At a recent Montreal conference on the global warming phenomenon, scientists cited increased use of alternative, renewable energy as one of the best ways to cut the emission of harmful carbon and sulphur dioxides.

|Renewables have a high profile now and I suspect budgets for research into the technology and its application are likely to grow,' says Stewart Boyle, energy campaigner for the environmental group Friends of the Earth. |We in Britain are already moving into applications and there are strong business opportunities.'

Wind energy is one of the biggest of those opportunities, and California, in particular, has been quick to harness it. The state has over 17,000 modern windmills. Tax breaks have also increased Californian enthusiasm for wind power, but wind turbines are now in demand in some 15 countries.

|The growth in the market has already surprised forecasters of the early 1980s and the wind industry has generated an annual average of over 16,000 jobs worldwide over the last six years,' says David Lindley, managing director of the Wind Energy Group, a British windmill maker. |It has seen an investment of over 2 billion [pounds] and Europe has already been a major beneficiary from the revival of this old industry.'

Although the investment in wind energy is small potatoes compared with the $2.5 billion it costs to build a single nuclear power station, the Department of Energy believes that the wind could provide about 3% of our current energy needs. Price increases in fossil fuels or technical breakthrough that improved turbine performance might make wind power even more attractive.

Yet, like many renewable energy sources, the wind is a fickle friend. It cannot always be relied on to blow. There are other drawbacks too. For instance, the size of windmills is restricted by the fact that the larger they get the less electricity they produce in proportion to size.

Energy parks are one answer to the intermittent nature of wind and other renewable energy sources. The parks are tracts of land given over to a number of energy technologies such as wind and biomass, the extraction of energy from biological materials, often by burning them.

The Department of Energy is shortly to test public reaction to wind power when it puts in planning proposals for three sites. They are located in some of the more picturesque parts of the country. …

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