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The swineherd was wrong

Misconceptions and misinformation have accompanied the growing interest in renewable energy in world politics. The combined weight of the renewables lobby needs to be pitted against the nuclear and fossil sectors. At the same time, each renewable technology needs to fight for its own share of the market, but with a full understanding of how best it can complement its fellow renewables.

The profile of renewable energy in world politics has steadily improved throughout the past year. Political agendas as diverse as Britain's election manifestos, China's requests for overseas aid, and Quebec's search for independence all include timely reference to renewables. Indeed, in these days of heightened environmental awareness, woe betide the politician who fails to publicly bow to a natural resource: it would be tantamount to a serious breach of political etiquette.

For the renewable energy industry, such new found attention is a welcome change. Public and political discussions are advancing beyond the question of "if" we should spend more on renewables to "when and how fast." With this hurdle all but cleared, the time has come to face up to the next looming dilemma: how best to shape energy policies to get the most out of each renewable resource. For while "the renewables" as a group require a fundamental political commitment to the sustainable use of energy, the individual technologies have very different roles to play -- and different needs. (pages 34-38). Energy politics of the future must take this into account.

We are blessed with a variety of natural sources of energy. Given the right framework, all our electricity needs could come from biomass, sun, wind and water. The sun might not shine much during cold climate winters, but the wind certainly blows -- and on days when the wind and the sun both fail, water pumped into reservoirs can be released to gush through turbines. Yet we have barely scraped the surface of the potential of these and other renewable resources. The reason why is more historical than technical.

Man at a very early stage learned the secret of fire. Burning matter with a high energy content became the accepted procedure for making electricity. Legend has it that a swineherd in the Ruhr district of Germany lit a fire one evening in the wallowing hole made by his pigs. The next morning he was fascinated to find it still burning, apparently kept alive by black rocks. It seems this swineherd must bear at least some of the responsibility for why we travelled down the coal route -- and technologies for exploiting nature's rich store of renewable energy were left largely untapped in the seven centuries that followed.

Perhaps such recognition of the influence of history on our energy habits could make it easier to accept that changing to renewables is progress, not something to fear. Such change requires not only a political commitment to a new approach, but also an understanding of the macro and micro potential of each renewable technology and how best go about realising it. The task is far from easy, but if the mind-power now devoted to fossil fuel and nuclear exploitation were put to devising a long term framework for sustainable use of energy, the job is well within the bounds of man's intelligence.

Unfortunately, a ground swell of misconceptions and misinformation has accompanied the new interest in renewables, to the extent that the precarious spending structures on which the new technologies still rest are in danger of erosion. With no clear conception of the particular potential of each technology, allocation of public money to research and development and market stimulation programmes can only be a hit and miss affair. Too often, it seems, spending decisions are being influenced by the lobby group which shouts loudest, and not by a careful evaluation of the macro potential of each renewable -- and how best to realise it.

The decision by the state of Lower Saxony in Germany to divert funds from wind to solar (Windpower Monthly, November 1996) is worrying not because the amounts involved are significant (wind still has its premium payments), but because it could turn out to be the forerunner of a stampede of such decisions. The fact that wind is closer to maturity than the solar technologies should not justify lower levels of research spending. On the contrary, wind's economic and technical achievements, which have considerably increased its export and emission-reducing potential, would suggest that more and not less funding is indicated. That's the argument the nuclear industry has successfully used for decades.

The time is ripe for the many renewable energy associations to get together and discuss these issues. To achieve the fundamental change in energy thinking discussed here, the combined weight of the renewables lobby needs to be pitted against the nuclear and fossil sectors. Wherever a nuclear tender is issued -- the most recent shocking example being Turkey -- renewables need to be there, offering a better alternative. At the same time, each renewable technology needs to fight for its own share of the market, but, and this is significant, with a full understanding of how best it can complement its fellow renewables. Within a sustainable energy framework, government spending policies still need to be technology specific.

The sheer diversity of needs for energy means there is a market more than ample for all the renewables. Each can concentrate on fulfilling the roles to which it is best suited, both in terms of performance characteristics and economics. It will be up to the champions of each technology to make this abundantly clear to decision makers. If they fail to do so, renewables will find themselves fighting a recurring backlash of criticism about misspent public money, while at the same time competing with one another for the same pool of cash.

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