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Oil shock puts spotlight back on renewable energy -- but for how long?

MIDDLE EAST CRISIS SPURS OIL PRICES... WORRIES DEEPEN OVER WORLD OIL RESERVES... WIND AND SUN: THE ENERGIES OF THE FUTURE.

Sound familiar? Those are headlines from 1974, yet they might just as well have come from newspapers today.

In 2004, a new Mideast war, surging demand in China and India and unbridled consumption in the United States have combined to unleash yet another "oil crisis".

The talk once more is about dwindling reserves of crude. Wind, solar and wave energy are being hauled out again as the cheap, clean fuels of the future. And oil is being damned anew as a dirty, politically vulnerable source.

But can "renewables" avoid another false dawn of the kind that occurred in the 1980s, when oil prices plunged and investment in green power all but dried up for at least a decade?

A major international conference, unfolding in Bonn from next Tuesday, may provide the answer.

The four-day gathering, hosted by Germany under a promise it made at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, will showcase the biggest corporate names in alternative energy and give experts and policymakers the chance to discuss how best to encourage this source.

"This is the first international summit of its kind. Its importance is vital," says environmental group Friends of the Earth Europe.

Renewables have indeed made headway since the 1970s energy shocks, but their biggest peril remains oil, says Julian Lee, senior analyst at Britain's Centre for Global Energy Studies.

Until green technologies become more established and more efficient, black gold will always be there to dangle the allure of a quick and cheap energy fix.

OPEC producers are well aware of the risk that a 40-dollar barrel poses to their interests, and fears that the world is running out of oil are "greatly overstated," Lee told AFP in London.

"Perhaps a more accurate reflection of what we're seeing at the moment is a lack of investment in getting the oil out of the ground rather than a shortage of reserves," he told AFP in London.

"It's much more critical to get the investment in place in new production capacity to actually get the stuff out of the ground. There's plenty of the stuff around."

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), renewables accounted for just five percent of world energy supplies in 2000, compared to 38 percent for oil, 50 percent for coal and gas, and seven percent for nuclear.

By 2030, renewables' share of the market will have risen just a faction, to six percent, and oil will have remained almost unchanged, at 37 percent.
But these raw figures are deceptive.

They mask big variations in energy use and policies, with for instance a huge gap between the European Union, the world's champion of renewables and energy conservation, and the United States, whose rivers of gas-guzzling cars make it the most profligate energy user in the world.

And weaning an economy off oil is far tougher than verbal flourishes made at big conferences, as the EU may quietly admit.

Just last Wednesday, the European Commission warned the EU was way off course for meeting its target of deriving 22.1 percent of 2010 energy needs from renewables. It called for more tax breaks, subsidies and other incentives.

The Bonn conference (www.renewables2004.de) ends with a two-day ministerial-level meeting expected to issue a political declaration and a bulky "international action plan" for furthering the use of renewables.

But, in response to US and Japanese pressures, there will be no targeted goals, just an unspecified commitment to boosting the share of renewables in the world's energy mix, say diplomats.

"The value of the conference is... in the coming together, the sharing of (knowledge about) what are the best practices, what are the best policy measures in the deployment of renewable energy, what can I learn from Germany, Italy or France, how do we we communicate the success that we've had in lowering the price of these technologies?" US delegation chief David Garman told AFP.

That non-binding, laisser-faire approach dismays green advocates.

They see it as an invitation to let oil climb back into the saddle once more as soon as prices ease, setting the stage for a further energy crisis and worsening pollution problems few years from now.

Editorial Notes: An otherwise decent article, tarnished with some un-backed up statements from Julian Lee of the Centre for Global Energy Studies who claims there will be a continuing over-abundance of oil. Note that the CGES is an industry connected body, with governing board members connected with Shell, the Saudi government and the Carlyle Group, so I would suggest their opinions should be taken with more than average skepticism.

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