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A small step for clean energy

Global warming is enough of a possibility--and enough of a hot-button public issue--that energy bosses need to sit up and take notice. But with nuclear as a panacea to environmental ills there is no need to worry. And renewables could be useful in remote areas. Such were the conclusions to be drawn from the World Energy Council's huge gathering of the energy industry clan in Texas. Wind, however, was not that easy to overlook.

Make no mistake about it. Although renewables secured a real foothold at the World Energy Council's 1998 jamboree, the international energy establishment still sees climate change as just a possibility -- and wind power as not much more than a niche technology for the Third World and for a few remote uses. The official theme of the 17th Congress of the World Energy Council (WEC) in Houston, Texas, was "Sustaining World Development into the Next Millennium." But what was billed as the most important energy event of the century and the coming millennium was focused more on sustaining profits during the global economic crisis than making clean power generation an integral part of our future.

Overall the conference contents seemed cautious and designed to please core members of the council, namely top fossil and nuclear companies from the First World. WEC, the energy industry's leading business group, has member committees in nearly 100 countries. Wind power was rarely taken seriously at the scheduled sessions or round table discussionss of top energy men. Nuclear, however, successfully jumped onto the clean energy bandwagon and was accepted as a great bet. Reports that it was ready to make a real contribution to mending global warming were picked up by news media and disseminated around the world with a rosy glow.

The official topic of "possible climate change" was avidly and repeatedly referred to by speakers, with the "possible" epithet retained even in sessions on environmental policies and near term green power technologies. There seemed to be little evidence of real knowledge about renewables, neither their track record so far nor their potential. Indeed, during much of the event a deep rift was evident between the short term interests of the main body of the energy industry and between those who must answer more immediately to public opinion, those who have longer term views and those who represented developing countries without much stake in energy production. Thirty-five energy ministers and a couple of heads of state were in attendance.

To the displeasure of WEC, Bill Clinton sent word that he would not be giving the opening speech. It was a serious breach of tradition, the first time in 75 years that the congress, held every three years, had not been opened by a sitting head of state of the host land.

Breaches of tradition were the exception rather than the rule, however. The conference sessions, attended by 5000 or so on the third floor of the city's convention centre, in large part ploughed on with the energy policy traditions of most of this century. Down below in the building, however, there was a glimmer of hope. The make-up of the exhibition suggested a far broader and more forward looking picture of energy. Of the 250 companies signed up, almost one-fifth were in the area set aside for renewables, the only special section. Houston may not have been a giant step for mankind, but it was a small step for clean energy. For a city that was once best known worldwide as the "control centre" for America's space exploration -- then the ultimate goal for technology and human endeavour -- the step could prove to be a symbolic turning point in the evolution of the energy business.

A gloss job

Attendance at the entire congress, from September 13-17, was lower than the 8000 at one point anticipated. Delegates listened to scores of speeches and papers, including summaries of 260 technical papers, and debated issues of import for members of the council. Reports of WEC's work for the last three years covered, at least theoretically, almost every conceivable angle of research and policy affecting conventional and non-conventional fuels -- from the technology or policy outlook over the next century, to energy in Slovakia and in Tibet. Even so, there was little that was truly electrifying and much that was glossed over.

The contents of the congress seemed slow moving and reflective of the interests of an inner-circle old boys' network. Information was closely controlled by members -- mostly major energy companies and energy producing countries except for members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Sponsors included the American Petroleum Institute, Texaco, Shell Oil, Exxon, Conoco, the US Gas Research Institute, the US Nuclear Energy Institute, representatives of electric utilities -- but nothing exclusively invested in renewables. Some of the most interesting sounding events -- such as the best investment bets for the next ten years -- were officially off-limits even to registered press. Keynote speeches were mostly notable for their lack of controversy and attempt at consensus.

It was former president and local favourite George Bush, known for recalcitrance on Kyoto and for the Gulf War, who ended up opening the congress. Clinton had pulled out with just ten days' notice, citing time constraints. It was telling that Clinton did not choose to send his pro-green Vice President, Al Gore. Bush's opening session speech, however, did contain a passing reference to wind power. More environmentally friendly ways of generating power should be found, he said, while more ways of converting energy to useful forms must be found.

The challenge

In one of his first official major appearances as US Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson was the highest level White House representative in attendance. Governments, said the former UN Ambassador, must create attractive climates for private investment, and they must work with industry on advanced technologies. They must commit to investing in science and technology for all energy forms -- including wind, solar and biomass as well as nuclear, coal, oil and gas. "There is no silver bullet, no single energy source, that will solve all our future energy needs and mitigate the environmental consequences of its production," he cautioned. "There is no better place to start forming global solutions."

Outside the official conference proceedings, Richardson later said the challenge is sustaining development while protecting the environment. The world will probably double its energy use by 2030 and quadruple it by 3000, with carbon emissions expected to rise 3.5 billion tonnes over current levels, he pointed out. The rift between these comments and the carefully constructed consensus of the conference was clear. In the WEC sanctioned report of Richardson's speech in the conference newspaper -- which usually reports on the oil and gas industry -- nuclear was given a high profile, while Richardson's caution on environment costs was downplayed.

Ken Lay, chairman and CEO of locally based Enron Corp, predicted that renewables will be increasingly emphasised in the future. Noting Enron's interest in solar and wind, he said that growth for renewables will be strong for the next ten years -- despite the cheapness and abundance of fossil fuels. That, he said, is in part because governments in countries such as the UK, Germany and US are stimulating growth. Lay also said that Enron, which owns Enron Wind in California and German wind turbine manufacturer Tacke Windenergie, is arguably now the world's largest integrated energy company. And within five to ten years, natural gas will become the second leading fuel after oil, overtaking coal, he predicted.

Criticism from within

In one of the most closely watched speeches of the congress, Sir John Browne, group CEO of the oil company British Petroleum, warned fellow companies executives not to ignore the challenges posed by customers' demands for energy less damaging to the environment. He admitted that detailed science on complex environment issues such as climate change was imperfect and incomplete. "The fact that we don't know everything isn't a reason for ignoring the evidence which does exist and which has influenced the views of our customers and our staff," he told the packed session.

In a hard hitting criticism of oil companies which fail to respond to worries about climate change, Sir John said: "Some people seem to believe that to engage in serious debate with the environmental lobby represents a form of suicide." It was Browne who broke ranks with oil companies 17 months ago when he urged colleagues to head off a catastrophic shift in the world's climate. Last year BP also started talks with Greenpeace activists in the UK.

Oil industry fears of a dialogue on climate change are not only misplaced, they are also paralysing and could ultimately be self-defeating -- because nothing would threaten the future of the industry more than ignoring reality, he continued. The industry can best respond to legitimate environmental concerns by providing choice, he said. Doing so is not coating oneself with green paint, it is good for business because it is responding to customers' wishes, remonstrated Browne.

"We can supply increasing volumes of oil and gas to meet world demand without destroying the environment for the next generation. Technology is the key," he claimed. Sir John dismissed suggestions that oil was a business of the present century that would not survive much into the 21st century. "The challenges are there. We can't run away from them, but we can meet them -- as we have before," he said. BP is the third largest oil company in the world.

With current economic turmoil in Asia threatening to spread further to Latin America, an oft-repeated concern was how energy companies could continue to expand business in the developing world. An estimated 90% of energy development is expected in China, India, Pakistan and Indonesia. On the opening day, WEC congress chairman Don Jordan, head of energy company Houston Industries, made it abundantly clear that the immediate priority of WEC members is how to sustain energy development. The priority, he said, is for energy companies to find ways to provide commercial energy to the two billion people in the world who currently live without it. That is more than one-third of the world's population burning wood or animal dung for fuel, noted outgoing WEC chairman John Baker. Use of such fuels leads to deforestation and soil depletion, he said, and the energy industry must use technology to help mitigate these problems. Technological improvements, such as making coal burn more cleanly, and global climate change, should also be addressed, he said.

In the session dedicated to environmental issues, technologies and strategies and their impact on the near-term development and applications of energy, the overview was given by Robert Priddle, director general of the Paris based International Energy Agency (IEA), a multi-lateral energy policy group for 24 countries in the west. Since energy is a major part of the climate change problem it must be a major part of the solution over the next ten to 15 years he said. The agency, he continued, is alarmed at recent decreases in RD&D funding; especially for nuclear and clean coal technologies which are so crucial to near term development. The link between economic growth and greenhouse emissions can only be broken with use of the right technologies, he said.

Nuclear bedfellow

The main "work" session surveying the status of renewables, a summary of WEC's three years of review and analysis, bundled them as a subject with nuclear power. The session attracted a large 100-plus attendance to hear chairman Allen Morgan give short shrift to renewables. Morgan is CEO and chairman of Eskom in South Africa. His views were backed by Gregory Rueger, a senior vice president of nuclear power generation from California utility Pacific Gas and Electric. Nuclear and renewables share positive characteristics, but are at very different stages of deployment, he said. Nuclear, though facing a troubled future, is a mature well proven technology that provides 17% of the world's electricity and has "significant air emissions benefits." Renewable technologies, he said, face two challenges -- their cost of energy and dispatchibility.

A round table entitled "Possible Climate Change: Where does the Global Energy Sector go From Here?" on the second last day of the congress also offered a telling glimpse of WEC's "members only" or "members first" thinking, a theme that would become abundantly apparent in the group's final conclusions and recommendations. In a paper entitled "Industry's technical initiatives towards climate change mitigation," Sam Muraki of Tokyo Gas Company Ltd and WEC's man in London, policy director Michael Jefferson, noted that nuclear power can definitely play a "significant role" in curbing emissions -- while renewables have "the potential to become an increasingly significant component" of primary energy sources.

Nuclear, they continued, is aiming to develop and deploy economically competitive generation. The amount of nuclear in a country's resource mix is determined, they said, by the availability and economics of other technologies and public concerns over safety and waste disposal. Renewables, on the other hand, must become more efficient and economic to become commercially competitive with conventional sources. They could then be effectively integrated into existing or evolving systems. In other words, nuclear is already a bona fide generating technology and is welcome in the big boys' tent, but renewables have yet to show their mettle.

Positive press

Away from the official goings on, wind had a far more positive and noticeable profile, reflected at press conferences at the congress and in the resulting media reports. A last minute press conference on wind energy featured two climate campaigners from Greenpeace along with Christophe Bourillon of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), and Leif Andersen of NEG Micon (US). Randy Swisher of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) was to have attended, but did not. Reporters packed the briefing room and wire stories were run by heavyweights Reuters and Dow Jones. Wind's worldwide growth was noted, as was the new membership of Royal Dutch/Shell group and Electricite de France in EWEA and NEG Micon's new US manufacturing facility.

Yet the congress' pro-nuclear tone was apparent even at the wind press conference. Pro-nuke gadfly Norman Jenkins, a conservative British consultant, told one reporter: "The problem is with you people is that you're against everything!" It turned out he thought that all speakers at the press conference were from Greenpeace. His outburst was enough to influence the media coverage of what should have been wind's moment at WEC. In a report on the press conference in the congress' daily newspaper on the following day, a sizeable proportion of it was information from Jenkins designed to undermine renewables.

Unplanned and also not sanctioned by WEC was a dramatic news stunt the next day by two environmental groups. Protesters unfurled a huge banner on the side of an office building proclaiming: "Houston We Have A Problem-Stop New Oil Exploration." The protesters, arrested quickly by local police, were with Rainforest Action Network and California-based Project Underground. The event was to dramatise a report, released the same day, slamming the social and environmental costs of oil. Hardly surprisingly, a press conference on the report planned for the same day was cancelled by WEC organisers. The next day a photo of the banner was in the Houston newspaper.

More immediately apparent to conference-goers, if not the media, was that for the first time renewables had a special area in the congress exhibition. It was the only separate grouping at the entire exhibition. Forty-four companies, trade groups and government agencies manned the "renewables pavilion" to drum up business and answer questions ranging from genuinely interested to tough or even hostile. Most exhibitors were US-based, from Enron Wind to the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association (TREIA), AWEA and Chicago-based financing company Heller Financial. A small overseas presence included Danish wind turbine manufacturers NEG Micon and Vestas. "We had the critical mass [of renewables companies] and the cross section," said a pleased TREIA's Russel Smith who organised the concerted renewables effort. "Our objectives were met -- renewables is a sector of the energy industry and belong on any energy floor. And they can compete with the rest of the energy industry."

In a sign of keenness and savvy renewables marketing, Enron Wind and Vestas were almost the only companies at the entire exhibition to display large scale hardware. At a Houston conference, those visiting the exhibition would be far more familiar with oil or gas equipment. EWEA's Bourillon, at the start of the congress, had said he was disappointed by the relatively low turn out of renewables companies. But by the end of the five day event, he was heartily commending companies for attending, putting in an appearance, and for fielding so many questions. Next door to the pavilion, wind also had a profile. A series of workshops organised by the US Energy Association -- the WEC representative in America -- were billed as suitable for "middle management and support staff from the American energy industry." The contents of the renewables track, of which wind was a key element, seemed to generate genuine interest and even enthusiasm among those who attended.

A two hour wind seminar, co-chaired by AWEA's Swisher and Judith Carroll of the Texas Department of Economic Development, was packed with information for delegates unfamiliar with wind -- the vast majority. It included presentations by EWEA's Bourillon, Ken Karas of Enron Wind, Mike Bergey of US small turbine maker Bergey Windpower, Johannes Poulsen of Vestas American, and Michael Yackira of FPL Energy Inc, the fast growing US energy company busy developing wind plant with NEG Micon.

Very Houston

The layout and atmosphere of the rest of the exhibition floor -- far noisier -- seemed highly symbolic. Oil, engineering and consulting companies were drawing crowds, with booze, food, music and lavish prizes. A gas-guzzling Sports Utility Vehicle was one of two vehicles raffled off by a couple of WEC members, one of them the Nuclear Energy Institute. A few Middle Eastern oil companies presented their business in quiet suites with lush carpeting. The stand of Enron Corp beckoned most loudly: rock music filled the central atrium of the downtown convention centre as crowds were mesmerised by a performance artist turning out huge splashy portraits of celebrity icons -- from Elvis to Einstein.

Also very Texan, or Houston, were social events surrounding the congress. A fireworks display on the day before the congress was described in tellingly gushing terms: "One of most powerful visual displays since Operation Desert Storm," enthused Hart's Congress Show Daily. A special rodeo was organised, and a meal for delegates -- almost like something out of the old Texas oil movie "Giant" -- was said to be the largest ever in the state and probably also in America.

Indeed the "giant" mentality of the lumbering energy establishment has yet to be seriously disturbed by the emergence of today's new breed of flexible and fast moving "distributed" power suppliers, renewables among them. The day is nearing, however, when the giant will be forced to mend its ways. Wind has already proved itself a leading contender for the job ahead.

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