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Time for an energy revolution

IMAGINE a world without the current 'sprawling and inefficient hodgepodge of pipelines, refineries, and polluting power plants' transporting, processing and burning fossil fuels. Imagine, instead, 'thousands of interconnected yet independent microsystems, each powered by a mix of alternative fuels and technologies, including fuel cells, and each generating energy cleanly, cheaply and locally'.

What would such a world be like?

For one thing, as Mr Paul Roberts points out in his expertly reported recent book, The End Of Oil, such a world would be free of 'manipulative' energy producers and traders. 'After centuries of an increasingly centralised energy economy, controlled by a tiny elite of corporations and investors and protected by governments, energy might again become a very local matter.'

That means producing, transporting and consuming the stuff will no longer be a matter of geopolitics but of local politics. Competition for energy resources will not end, but the fight will take place within local legislative assemblies and markets, not between national armies.

Where energy is concerned, the world would be infinitely better off if all politics were indeed truly local.

The United States will not need to spend billions of dollars fighting distant wars to secure its and the industrialised world's access to oil. In Asia, China and Japan will not need to engage in a potentially dangerous rivalry to secure their access to Russian gas and oil. The world's fortunes will no longer be held hostage to a particularly unstable and angry region - the Middle East - just because it happens to hold two-thirds of the world's known reserves of crude oil. And the diplomatic, economic and military strategies of nearly every nation on the planet will no longer 'continue to be shaped by one overriding objective - to maintain uninterrupted access to a steady stream of (fossil) energy'.

But how realistic is this dream? Is it utopian - meaning 'no place', and therefore imaginary - or is it topian, an actual possibility, if not here and now, at least in the foreseeable future? As it so happens, it is the latter - but only if we so choose.

There are already 'wind farms that can generate enough electricity to power a city', notes Mr Roberts, an expert on energy economics. Research on hydrogen fuel cells has progressed by leaps and bounds in the past decade, as has work on 'biofuel', energy made from grain, crop waste and other organic material.

Engineers are working on literally dozens of renewable energy sources - among them, 'hydropower, solar and wind power, biomass, and geothermal, tidal, and dozens of other intriguing technologies'.

Equally important, technology already exists to radically improve the energy efficiency of current fossil-based systems: Cars, for example, that can go 35km on 1 litre of petrol, and refineries that can turn coal into clean-burning fuel. Toyota's Prius, with its petrol-electric hybrid engine, is doing extremely well on the market this year, its sales doubling compared to the last.

The US, with less than 5 per cent of the world's population, consumes a quarter of the world's total energy. But if there is an average of just 1km-per-litre gain in the fuel efficiency of the US light-vehicle fleet, that alone would be enough to replace entirely America's import of Persian Gulf oil.

Indeed, according to Mr Roberts, 'the amount of oil, electricity, and other energy that could be saved through better efficiency in the US alone - the so-called 'energy efficiency' - is actually larger than America's physical reserves of oil and gas. It is now possible to save more oil than the US could possibly find in the ground, and to do so at a per-barrel cost well below the average market price for oil'.

Ironically, the biggest undiscovered oil field is not buried out there in the Saudi Arabian desert or in the Gulf of Mexico. It is buried in the world's existing buildings, factories and cars, and can be cheaply extracted by making basic fuel-efficiency improvements. In other words, it is not necessary to invade Iraq to secure its oil fields; nations can uncover multiple Iraqs in their own backyards if only they took seriously energy conservancy and efficiency.

Sooner or later, the world will have to. Sooner or later, it will have to take seriously the development of alternative energy sources and build a new energy system not wholly dependent on fossil fuels. Quite apart from concerns over global warming or Middle East stability, the amount of new oil discovered has been declining steadily since 1960, the peak year for oil discoveries.

The problems of creating a new energy regime, however, are tremendous. The existing energy regime is 'an enormous asset', as Mr Roberts notes, worth at least US$10 trillion (S$17 trillion), and it can't be written off overnight. Secondly, despite their huge potential, 'most alternative technologies aren't ready for prime time'. Cars running on hydrogen fuel-cells, for instance, cost many more times than cars running on petrol; solar power costs five times as much as coal-fired power.

Still, there is no doubt that change must and will happen. As Mr Roberts points out, the only question is whether it will be swift and chaotic, forced by circumstance - in which case, there will be widespread disruption, uncertainty and economic loss. Or will it be gradual and smooth, phased in over time - in which case, losses might be minimised and people might learn to adapt.

Business-as-usual is no longer an option.

Editorial Notes: It's good to see the emphasis on energy efficiency, however this article would have benefitted from a more critical approach to the alternative energy sources it promotes, especially hydrogen. It could also have mentioned that the building of the infrastructure of such projects really needs to be done over a period of years and decades of relatively cheap fossil fuel energy, which we may or may not have ahead of us.

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