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Energy Advice: Think Long Term and at the Local Level!

Interview of Nikos Salingaros by Mumtaz Soogund on Defimedia, Mauritius, 8 March 2013.

Dr. Salingaros recently joined the CT (Centrale Thermique) Power debate in Mauritius, and in this light graciously agreed to share his views on the matter with the readers of News on Sunday.

MS: A coal-powered plant proves to be a massive investment in the long run, and people are talking more and more about renewable sources of energy. Are they viable and would they be equally efficient in Mauritius? 

NS: Of course, it is very easy to build a coal-powered plant today, because the techniques have already been developed for several years now, but we must think about the long term. Where does the coal come from? Does the equation include the cost of transporting the basic materials? Is the source of coal and its low price guaranteed for decades? No. Because once the decision is made, the nation is linked to this energy source and a particular distribution technology, and it would be too expensive to change afterwards; and I here I am speaking about the generations ahead. Renewable energy is not as developed now, but at least it does not bind the country to a solution that is antiquated and probably unstable. The great advantage of alternative energy sources is their scale: the technology allows a distribution of several “central power stations”, small enough so that one does not even call such a power plant “central”. A country may today make the decision to skip over old technologies such as coal, to arrive directly at the methods of the future for extracting renewable energy.

MS: Should the energy sector be addressed separately from the term sustainable development?

NS: Not at all! Energy is closely linked with sustainable development (or not). Without energy, there is no possibility for development, but if you pay too much for energy, we’re stuck anyway and development suffers, becoming a victim of constraints and instabilities. The country must have a very clear idea of sustainable development, tied to a plan for producing and consuming energy. The two go together. And even if you use “clean” energy for the purposes of unsustainable development, you will win nothing.

MS: The government highlighted that our energy demands are increasing and thus warrant a new power plant. However, very little is being heard about reducing our energy consumption. What design alternatives/ideologies can we adopt in order to achieve a lower energy consumption?

NS: The energy waste worldwide is appalling. A population can be happy with much less energy than we think we need today. Look into the past. Those days with very little energy! Add our medical and scientific advances to the traditional model of society, for a healthy life. The result does not even approach the image of crazy consumption encouraged by the media! The media puts across the wrong impression: that we are compelled to consume a huge amount of energy. Why? To play childish games of copying the rich and energy independent countries? A wise government will promote a practical and educational program to reduce energy consumption as a central factor in its program of sustainability and independence. The right word here is to seek “independence” from global industries that control energy, zeroing in on possible local solutions.

MS: What are your suggestions to improve our capacity by 2015 and 2020?

NS: I am not going to give specific advice, but rather general suggestions. Think long term and at the local level! Believe in the stability of the entire system: in all the interactions among society, industry, energy, transport, and economic growth. Do not let one dominate the other. Be wary of so-called solutions offered by the rich countries, because they have hidden agendas. And this is also applicable to renewable energy: do not adopt a technology that is controlled by a multinational giant. It is better to work with local firms, small and new, to avoid monopoly. There are small-scale solutions to renewable energy that are not too strongly developed, but nonetheless offer eco-friendly ideas to solve the problems in the long term. Consider the possibility for a big change in four years, when the innovative energy technologies will advance surprisingly.

MS: There is a strong opposition against coal plants, but we also need to urgently increase our power capacity. What is the solution?

NS: According to my thinking, the capacity increase isn’t as huge as people tend to believe. If we make an effort to reduce energy waste in urban construction that occurs as a result of zoning, and its corresponding vehicular transportation, we will already save a lot. Using an incremental program with multiple local renewable energy sources could be the solution. This is a solution which governments do not like at all, because it is not centralized, and therefore not controllable. But a wise government will implement innovative ideas in spite of its own bureaucratic tendency.

MS: Pitched against the cost of alternatives like solar or wind turbines, coal appears cheaper. Is coal power a solution if all precautions are taken to reduce environmental risks?

NS: Coal hides its real costs in catalytic systems that are quite expensive but necessary to treat the dirty smoke. The pollution we see today in China causes a massive degradation of the environment. I see no solution for China because it has adopted systems of energy production by burning coal. Even though China is now producing solar panels, it is too late to change. For the cost, what is cheap today could be extremely expensive in the future. And the reverse: renewable technologies, if implemented on a small and distributed scale today can become cheaper tomorrow. I emphasize again: be wary of centralized renewable energy systems, and focus on small-scale local solutions.

MS: What measures do you propose to drastically reduce demand for electricity, because a reduction means no need for more power plants?

NS: The waste of energy is mainly due to the construction and running of cities. After World War II, cities were built according to a model based on the insane waste of energy. It was done on purpose, following the dreams of certain architects of that time. It is a model of the 1920s, when planners and architects dreamed up images of a future of science fiction without really thinking ahead: a city of skyscrapers among parks and beautiful highways (empty of cars!). This dream became a nightmare. It does not work. In contrast, the sustainable city should be built upon traditional models of cities, where scale, geometry, fluxes, and transport give priority to pedestrians. The sustainable city is assembled from and works on all scales, it does not concentrate energy in nuclei like skyscrapers or a transport system that is purely vehicular. Therefore it does not need huge amounts of energy costs. These mixed-use cities that I propose are congested, of course, but if you try to change their geometry according to the image of skyscrapers, you kill the city. You just have to see how they killed the major cities in Asia.

MS: Even Europe, despite being ecologically alert, is continuing to invest in coal plants. Why then should a small state like Mauritius not do the same in order to enhance its development?

NS: This argument is valid only to encourage wild consumption of energy, and is especially beneficial to companies wishing to extract a hefty profit in the energy sector. Europe can self-destruct tomorrow. Do you want the same fate for Mauritius? Do you think that Europeans are really wiser in their consumption of energy? Certainly, a group of scientists and thinkers who offer innovative solutions are there, but governments are content to follow the wrong but convenient path. This will continue until a massive collapse. Finally, what is development? Definitely not growth of energy consumption, as Western economists say! Let’s not be stupid, and do not swallow the myth that is common in richer countries. “Development” is in fact a healthy and balanced life for the population. Indeed, we need energy, but more important than that is the quality of life, which does not depend entirely on the consumption of energy.

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