Alternative energy options
Electricity generation accounts for just 9% of annual human greenhouse gas emissions. Ways must be found to reduce emissions from the whole of the energy sector.
This section briefly outlines a few of the alternatives by which the world can satisfy its energy needs in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.
Sustainable is above all efficient
There are hundreds of ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the energy sector. A few examples are listed below but the list is by no means exhaustive:
Numerous studies have shown that the single most effective way to reduce emissions is to reduce energy demand (Marignac & Schneider, 2001). A lot of energy could already be saved with the design of smarter consumer electronics, or with less wasteful ways to regulate the temperatures of our building. This may seem obvious but unfortunately it is all too often forgotten in policymaking. Unfortunately this seems to be the case in the largest energy consuming country in the world, the USA. The views of the current administration on energy policy are typified in the following quote from Vice President Dick Cheney:
China is set to overtake the US (at 21%) as the biggest producer of greenhouse gases by 2025 unless current trends are modified (WWF, 2004). Although a major enlargement program for nuclear energy has got underway, this will not provide any solution to China's contribution to climate change. China has vast cheap coal and gas resources and it is an illusion to imagine that nuclear developments will prevent China from using its coal. The key challenge will be to slow down the enormous increases on the demand side (Schneider & Froggatt, 2004) by shifting towards using renewable energy, such as solar or wind power, and more efficiency in energy consumption.
Can sustainable energy supply our needs?
The whole of society's energy demands amount to less than 0.1% of the energy we receive from the sun each year . So far there are only limited places where we can harness this solar energy in an effective way but this gives an indication of the vast potential of renewable energy sources. Chances for renewable energy will increase substantially in a supportive economic climate and when governments set ambitious but realistic targets. In some countries, such as Germany, the scientific community operates in important studies with an ambitious target of 46% renewable energy sources by 2050 (Johansson et. al, 2004).
Renewable energy sources have multiple benefits. Not only is their use free from greenhouse gas emissions but they can also increase diversity in the energy market. Thereby they will reduce dependence on specific energy sources and so increase security of supply. They can provide long-term sustainability of our energy supply. And because of their small-scale applicability, they can be used in rural areas of less developed countries that are not connected to gas and electricity networks.
In the medium term it is possible to supply all of the world's energy needs through renewable sources based on current technology (i.e. not including the further developments to be made in the future). This scenario has been depicted in three separate studies, compiled by The Union of Concerned Scientists in the USA (1978); The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis for Europe (1981); Enquete Commission of the German Bundestag (2002). Whilst none of these studies have ever been seriously refuted, they have all been largely ignored by conventional experts (Scheer, 2004).
The technology is available to provide our energy needs through renewable sources and thereby to make huge reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions. However, in the past new energy systems have not been fully implemented due to the supposed high financial costs. It now turns out that these costs are not so high.
The costs of alternative energy options
Despite the commonly heard arguments that alternative energy sources and energy saving technology are not economically viable, the majority of studies show that this is not actually the case. In 1997, a report issued by the United States Department of Energy (DOE) stated that CO2 emissions in the USA could be brought back to 1990 levels by 2010 at no added cost by increasing energy efficiency and decreasing demand (FOE, 1998). A World Energy Council (WEC) report in the same year confirmed that increased energy efficiency is the biggest, most immediate and cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emission (WWF, 2000). Furthermore, the costs of renewable energy sources are falling very rapidly: in the last 10 years the cost per kWh of electricity from wind turbines fell by 50%, and that from photovoltaic cells fell by 30% (NEA, 2001). Costs of renewable energy sources are expected to become lower as more research is carried out and more experience is gained with these techniques.
The most interesting point to note here is that the costs of renewable energy sources are falling whilst the costs of nuclear power are rising, despite the fact that nuclear power has been hugely subsidised over the last half century. Estimates show that to date the nuclear industry has received around $1 trillion in state support, compared to just $50 billion for renewable energy (Scheer, 2004). If these huge investments had been made in renewable energy the total energy production from these sources would today be huge.
Given the fact that nuclear power can only temporarily and partially contribute to reduce greenhouse gas emissions it would be very inefficient to invest huge sums in nuclear development whilst investments in truly sustainable and environmentally friendly energy alternatives are much more rewarding.
Friends of the Earth Vlaanderen & Brussel (voorheen Voor Moeder Aarde) is lid van Friends of the Earth International