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SURVIVORS WILL BE SMALL AND AGILE

The article is a short review of the major trends in the recently published book, Power Surge, A Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution by Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen from the US environment research organisation, Worldwatch Institute. The book predicts that fundamental changes are underway regarding both use and production of energy. Oil refineries and coal-fired power plants may soon be obsolete as giant companies are overtaken by smaller, versatile forward looking firms. The speed and the extent of the "revolution" will depend on the policy makers in the world community.

A fundamental change in the world's energy production and use is now underway, according to a new book from US environment research organisation, Worldwatch Institute. Power Surge: Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution says the shift is also as far-reaching and rapid as the revolutions of 19th century industry or 20th century telecommunications. The book also predicts that oil refineries and coal-fired power plants may soon be obsolete as giant companies are overtaken by smaller, agile forward looking firms.

Authors Christopher Flavin, also with the American Wind Energy Association, and Nicholas Lenssen foresee a turbulent next decade as large energy companies struggle to preserve the status quo and newer companies and their environmental allies fight to change government policy and open energy markets to greater competition. "Many giant oil, auto and electric utility companies may find themselves in the position of IBM -- overtaken by smaller competitors better able to anticipate the coming revolution," they say. The transition will accelerate in the next decade, pushed by the need to stabilise the climate and pulled by investment opportunities.

The book, published in mid October, notes that huge established companies such as Westinghouse, Mitsubishi and Enron are now in renewables. Among the changes likely to have the greatest impact in the next decade are mass-produced wind turbines and solar generators, as well as electric cars, tiny fuel cells, rooftop solar panels, and efficient gas turbines. "We see the decade after 2000 as being one where you are going to see a real emergence of things like solar and wind energy as a large share of electric power systems," says Flavin in promoting the book. As the world increasingly relies upon renewables in the developed and Third World, wind and solar could meet half of all the world's energy needs over the next few decades, according to the book. Specifically, Flavin and Lenssen note that in theory Europe could get 7-26% of its power from wind; the US, Argentina, Canada, Chile, China, Russia, and the UK could theoretically get all their power from wind; and others such as Egypt, India, Mexico, Tunisia and South Africa could push their reliance on wind to one-fifth.

The scenario, however, is controversial. It is extremely pro-renewables, perhaps a little starry-eyed and in stark contrast to those of conservative agencies or groups which foresee -- maybe with even less likelihood -- a future with only escalating use of dirty, conventional power. But Worldwatch does acknowledge that the speed of the change depends upon politics, such as whether nations pursue the provisions of the Rio climate treaty of 1992. And it slams most energy planners and analysts as trapped in a stagnation and confusion that they say began in the 1970s. Indeed, analysts at leading institutions have consistently failed in their energy predictions, for example over-estimating the use of nuclear by a factor of six.

Worldwatch calls for four shifts in US government policy, bound to be opposed by entrenched interests which have no desire to see renewables take over their sectors. Government should redirect US domestic and international aid funding from fossil fuels to promising new technologies; it should tax polluting emissions while reducing subsidies for fossil fuels; it should speed up investment in new energy technology through multi-year, market driven government purchases so companies can scale up production and capture greater economies of scale; and it should redirect energy research and development spending, 85% of which currently goes to fossil and nuclear, to focus on new energy technologies. Indeed the book opens with the words of computer visionary Alan Kay, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

Utilities hold the key

The proposed changes are based on less government involvement and a more market driven energy future. The key for wind, they say, is the stance of utilities. The grid must be increasingly opened to independent power producers, as it has been in Denmark and California. They recommend the sort of tax breaks now used in Germany to spur wind development and also note the importance of access to transmission lines, saying that advances in electronic technology will increase the carrying power of large lines and reduce line losses.

Is the outlook of "Power Surge" realistic? Will energy change that fundamentally within a relatively short period of time? After all, computer visionary Alan Kay is nowadays known in Silicon Valley as an early pioneer who missed the boat. The computer revolution certainly occurred, although ordinary people are not using computers as widely as was foreseen by the electronics industry.

Flavin sees a great deal of change happening anway. "Regardless of crises, there is some identifiable progress in terms of trends under way that will bring some degree of change," he says in defending his scenario. He notes that wind is taking off on several continents even with historically low oil prices and little interest from governments -- and he expects the trend to accelerate. Technological change, he says, is usually slow at first then more rapid, whether for the car industry, personal computers or renewables.

Flavin also points out that he and Lenssen predict a fast change outlook for energy, predicated upon a "climate crisis" in the late 1990s, the scenario that Flavin personally believes is most likely. He notes that the Rio summit has boosted the climate issue, although less so in the United States than in Europe, that carbon dioxide climate is now an issue on the table and that carbon taxes are now quite possible.

In the book, the authors note that the cost of wind turbines has already fallen by two-thirds. As many as 20,000 wind turbines were estimated to be in use at the end of 1993, it says, producing 30 times as much energy as a decade earlier. India may soon become the world leader in wind power. Along with China, it could use more wind, solar and fuel cells than traditional technologies -- if the two nations can avoid investing heavily in antiquated coal and oil technologies.

Worldwatch uses a technique pioneered, ironically, by Shell Oil. The research team constructed an energy scenario in which carbon concentrations are stabilised over the next 50 years, as called for in the Rio climate treaty. Solar, wind and geothermal would grow rapidly next century, while the use of coal and oil would decline by 73% and 20% respectively over the next 25 years.

They say increased use of natural gas will be a bridge to nonpolluting hydrogen fuel, the major energy carrier of the 21st century, and derived from wind, solar and geothermal. "The emergence of renewable energy technologies marks a transition from mined fossil fuels to manufactured, mass-produced energy conversion devices," the book says. "In the future, hydrogen may be piped from the windy Great Plains of North America to the eastern seaboard, and from the deserts of western China to the populous coastal plain," states the book. More specifically, the authors predict some growth in natural gas, now at 21% of demand; in bio fuels, at 13%; and in hydro, at 6%. But oil and coal use will decline in the next few decades; and nuclear, now at 6%, will see little or no growth. Other Third World trends include several countries going into the business of making PV panels, such as Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, and the use of solar power by more than 200,000 homes in developing countries.

The book's predictions are at odds with those of more industry oriented groups, such as the World Energy Council and the International Energy Agency, which see skyrocketing oil imports, huge energy bills in the Third World that bankrupt countries, and unprecedented disruptions to the climate. In contrast, Power Surge says the coming energy revolution may exceed the expectations of such experts. "The basic shape of the modern energy system emerged in the short span of two decades, from 1890 until 1910," they say. "The conditions are ripe for a second energy revolution, with equally dramatic social and economic effects."

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