The Energy Crisis – When the Lights Go Out

Ever since man first noticed the brilliance of the flickering yellow fiery flames, we have strived to illuminate our homes and bring light into our darkness filled worlds. Today, we are lighting more bulbs, powering more machines and guzzling more fuel than ever before and with six billion people, all competing for more energy, the future looks dire. Currently, there are 2 billion people worldwide without modern energy supply. With growing populations and ballooning demands for goods, energy and services, a new crisis – the energy crisis stares us at point-blank. There is an urgent need for change, one that is fast and effective, to ensure that humans continue to survive and evolve on the planet that is our only home.

In his recent speech, President Barack Obama stressed on the need for investment in alternative energy sources. Furthermore, the EU has pledged to generate 20% of its energy from renewable sources in ten years. Although, these are good gestures, they are certainly not enough. Despite the fact that USA and EU consume the most energy in the world, the impetus on pushing for sustainability and green energy lies with the emerging superpowers like India, Brazil, China and Russia. These future giants must base their economies not on oil and coal but on green sources of energy. The emerging countries must herald an era of sustainable development and not one of reckless exploitation.

The biggest promise seems to come from the cradles of civilisation – rivers. Just like the ancient civilisations in the Indus, Nile, Huang Ho, Euphrates and Ganges, there is more than sufficient reason to believe that rivers may bring us prosperity and sustainability even today. Power generated from flowing water may be the best answer for energy needs, especially in the developing world. This concept was even illustrated in the Indian Bollywood movie, Swades (translation: Homeland), in which the protagonist returns from the US to India and helps a village become energy self-sufficient through building a small hydropower generating station. This is especially valuable to communities in small towns and villages that are situated near rivers and streams capable of hydro power generation. At present, hydropower accounts for 19% of the world’s energy consumption.

The only thing keeping back more dams is government policy and one cannot merely shove the blame onto the political world leaders. Local populations often have to be displaced to make room for the reservoir and the entire ecology of the surrounding areas is thrown out of gear. But if the environmental impact can be palliated with smaller dams and proper mitigation of social effects be carried out, we could be very well on the path to greater energy self sufficiency in countries like India and China. Even poor nations in Africa can benefit hugely from this source of power. Being a rugged continent, Africa has lots of rivers that have the capacity to generate thousands of megawatts for lighting thousands of homes in rural communities.

Approaches similar to those adopted by watershed development programmes in India exemplified by the village of Ralegan Siddhi must be adopted in other developing countries. An integrated and holistic perspective has to be taken so that the communities become self-sufficient. Not only do these projects ensure energy but also jobs, infrastructural development and social upheaval of the people.

Since the ancient times, winds have driven our imaginations and our ships. The ancient Egyptians were probably the first to use a sail to propel them to hitherto undiscovered and mysterious worlds. The prime example of wind energy being utilised is that of the Netherlands, a country that boasts of the best wind power generation figures and technology in the whole world. It is indeed an envious position for any country when nearly 20% of energy demands is fulfilled by wind energy. With great multi-national corporations like Vestas, GE Energy and Suzlon investing heavily in the wind energy sector, there is little surprise that the sector has been growing by around 24% annually worldwide. However, presently the world produces only 1.5% of its energy from wind. Government initiatives such as subsidies and research investments have to be put in place to spur the growth of the wind energy sector. There needs to be cooperation between different nations so that scientists and engineers can collaborate to develop better and more efficient wind turbines.

Sol, Surya and Ra, the Roman, Indian and Egyptian Sun Gods are all testimonies of the veneration that humans have always had towards the star that gives us all life. The sun possesses immense energy from the intense nuclear fusion reactions taking place within it. Solar power has been around for quite some time and solar devices like the solar cooker, solar water heater and even solar power driven cars have been developed. However, the limited efficiency compels one to forgo this huge untapped reserve of energy. But there is cautious optimism with new technologies like organic solar cells and new materials for photovoltaic batteries that promise better conversion rates. Governments need to keep the ball rolling and pump investments into research in this sector. What we need is newer technology that can take this energy and convert it into something that can drive our economies and factories. A recent study astoundingly found out that even a small fraction of the Sahara desert of the size of a small country can alone produce enough solar power to comfortably support the entire energy needs of the whole continent of Europe, home to some of the most developed energy consuming giants like Germany, France and the United Kingdom. New techniques like parabolic solar cells and solar towers that reflect focussed light beams onto cells on the ground have been conceptualized. It seems like solar power may indeed have a bright future provided good policies adopted by governments and corporate houses. What is needed is a change in the attitudes of both the suppliers as well as consumers. Although solar power can be more expensive than conventional thermal energy from fossil fuels, policymakers should take the long run into perspective because soon most of the fossil fuel reserves will be depleted.

Brazil has been the pioneer in the biofuel industry since many years. The main fuel is ethanol which is produced from sugarcane and is then used in hybrid mixtures with conventional fuel. With new technologies being developed, there is growing consensus that corn and sugarcane may very well be replaced by a hardy plant named Jatropha curcas. This plant does not need lots of water and its seeds have significantly better oil yields. Proposals talk about planting it in huge arid wastelands, thus afforesting, not compromising on food production and also using oil from the seeds to power machines in an Eco-friendly manner. Not only are emissions much lower but also this source of energy is practically renewable and inexhaustible.

Gaia, the Greek goddess or spirit of the Earth has sustained us for thousands of years and it’s only our relentless greed that raises questions about our ability to ensure survival of our progeny. But hope lies even beneath the Earth’s crust, in large vents of molten lava and rocks. Ever since 1904 when the first geothermal plant was developed, countries like United States, Philippines and Iceland have generated power from these geysers that heat water just above the Earth’s surface to drive turbines. However, geothermal power can only be generated in specific areas like the edges of tectonic plates and must be carefully managed to avoid local depletion of the power generating site.

Besides the rather conventional renewable sources of energy like hydropower, wind energy, solar power, biofuel and geothermal energy there are also some new exciting upcoming sources of inexhaustible energy. There is excitement concerning ocean power plants that make use of the flow of large masses of deep ocean waters that move in currents. Some concepts regarding the development of power plants generating electricity from waves have also been put forward. Then there are the more ambitious technologies. Scientists speculate that a mineral called helium-3 that is found on the moon can be a huge source of energy for future generations on Earth. Also, satellites have been visualised that can convert solar energy more efficiently in outer space in orbit around the Earth. Without the atmosphere absorbing solar energy, a lot more solar power can be converted into usable energy. Then this energy can be transferred to the Earth’s surface where it can be distributed to the consumers.

The need of the hour is a drastic paradigm shift towards positive attitudes with respect to green renewable energy. If governments can come up with grass root solutions targeting real people who face real threats, the crisis can be overcome. It is the hallmark of humans to face problems and then solve them to rise above challenges. It’s the one characteristic thanks to which we rule the planet today. As the ones who have the power, it is our responsibility to cherish our planet that has nurtured us since millennium.