Andreas Späth

Our energy future - it's a no brainer

2013-07-08 14:45

Andreas Späth

Our modern lives - our homes, schools, hospitals, industries and cities - are vitally dependant on electricity. And while we need to take a hard look at how we currently waste and over-consume this commodity, there is no way around the fact that we need to keep on producing it in large quantities.

While generating electrical power is not difficult - we have the know-how and resources - the crucial question is how we produce it, since the different methods aren't equal in terms of inputs, outputs and impacts.

Electricity production is much less a technological problem than it is a political and policy issue. I'd like to believe that as rational beings in a supposedly democratic society we should be able to collectively decide on a method of producing electricity that will be of the greatest benefit and the least detriment to all of us.

We should be able to agree on a number of basic values that should be embodied in the way in which we generate this electricity:

- it should be sustainable, ideally providing a plentiful and stable supply indefinitely, while also being financially viable and creating long-term jobs;

- it should be as local as possible, negating the need to import resources and promoting our energy independence;

- it should be technologically feasible today and not have to rely on possible future breakthroughs for its success;

- it should be as environmentally-friendly as possible, minimising impacts through pollution and the depletion or destruction of natural resources and ecosystems, and contributing to the fight against climate change.

We should be able to judge our available options against these values and come up with a plan for our common energy future.

In South Africa, we're currently almost entirely dependent on coal for our electricity production and while we have enough of the stuff to last for a while yet, it's the reason for our massive national carbon footprint and globally it's one of the main causes of climate change.

Conventional petroleum is a non-renewable resource that's in terminal decline, while shale gas, tar sands and similar low-return-on-energy-investment sources of energy offer only short-term energy solutions at best.

All of these fossil fuels are toxic - if we continue to burn them at anywhere near the rate we are doing now, we condemn future generations to a devastating global climate disaster long before we’ve used them all up.

What about nuclear energy? Even if we ignore the hidden costs, the very substantial safety concerns and the fact that there is still no acceptable way of dealing with the highly toxic radioactive waste it produces, nuclear power is not a long-term solution.

Uranium is a finite, non-renewable source of energy and as Nafeez Ahmed explains convincingly, the massive new nuclear build proposed by some is bound to lead to significant price hikes and debilitating fuel supply shortages.

Let's forget these energy dead ends and focus on two things we have plenty of here in South Africa: space and sunshine. There are no insurmountable technical problems to generating massive amounts of clean solar power in our wide-open spaces that are regularly drenched by our famous sunshine, using proven photovoltaic and solar thermal technologies.

It's happening in Australia and it's being implemented by the most advanced companies in the world. It's making its way into the planet's biggest cities and, slowly, slowly, it's even coming to us here in South Africa.

Solar power can be produced on a wide range of scales at increasingly competitive costs, allowing for anything from industrial-sized installations to mini power plants bolted to the roof of a family home, and since sunlight is free and effectively eternal it offers the promise of energy democracy and independence to individuals, communities and entire countries. Combined with other renewable energy sources, such as wind power, in a widely distributed smart grid that includes efficient transmission and storage capacities, clean electricity can be provided whenever and wherever it’s needed.

It's not necessarily going to be easy and the initial investment in capital and effort may be very substantial, but the end result will be an energy solution that's compatible with our desired values. There’s nothing particularly complicated about it - all we need is the political will to make it a reality.

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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