26 October 2005

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Business Today

Abundant sun and wind power for free

Experts estimate that at today’s consumption rates, known global supplies of oil and natural gas would be depleted within decades. In the second and final part, the author takes a look at alternative energy sources

The price of a barrel of crude oil has increased to over $70 for the first time, making front-page headlines, as perhaps it should. Inevitably petrol prices in Malta also soared two weeks ago.
Naturally, governments use fuel as a means of tax collection and when the base cost goes up they are loath to reduce their tax intake .For a long time, the fuel tax amounted to 15c a litre in Malta. With more fuel price escalations on the horizon, will our inflation index inevitably go up?
Experts estimate that at today’s consumption rates, known global supplies of oil and natural gas would be depleted within decades. But prices are expected to rise significantly long before supplies run out, making those fuels too expensive to use at current levels. In the short-term, fossil fuel prices are being driven up by war, political instability, natural disasters and other variables.
The long-term outlook is clearer – global supplies are dwindling as demand soars, particularly in China and India, where automobiles are multiplying and economies are growing at breakneck speed. Oil and all its by-products are non-renewable resources. Oil reserves are becoming much harder to find and as the reserves become scarcer the price of oil increases.
Many analysts are suggesting the current rise could well leave us with prices in excess of $60 a barrel this winter. Exactly what this will equate to at the local petrol pump is in many ways irrelevant: whatever it is the price of petrol is destined to rise and government may seek to extract more tax revenues to balance its deficit although increased cost of electricity generation will exacerbate Enemalta’s current losses.
And, it will most likely rise rapidly unless Saudi Arabia mandates a higher output in the short term. But this is all a question of supply and demand. The nature of our global economic system is that as something becomes scarce, it becomes more valuable and so more consumers want it.
This creates exponential growth in that item’s price. In sheer contrast, renewable energy (RE) is a significant resource, accounting for 14 per cent of the world’s total primary energy supply and 19 per cent of the fuel used for power generation. It is a resource of contrasts. In the form of biomass, used directly, it is the energy mainstay for large swathes of the population in the developing world and has been for thousands of years.
At the other extreme, converted into electricity, some people regard it as the holy grail of energy for the industrialised world because it is sustainable and in a polluted world it is mostly environmentally friendly.
In these applications it is at the cutting edge of energy technology.
Ironically despite its importance it is less familiar to most people than conventional energy sources like coal, oil, gas and nuclear power, in use all over Europe.
Until very recently, renewable energy has been considered outside the mainstream. It has been the vision of environmentalists, inventors and scientists. In the literature for each renewable source of energy you will find somewhere the claim that alternative energy could provide about half the world’s energy requirement if only given the chance.
Last year the Malta Resources Authority (MRA) had said it was working on a reform of the electricity sector, the regulation of utilities, exploitation of renewable energy and regulation of mineral resources. The MRA is aiming to achieve a more efficient supply of electricity and attract private investment for the benefit of the consumer and the economy, as well as in the interest of national supply security.
Hopefully, a reformed energy distribution system will ensure less power black-outs in the future. This leads us to an insoluble dilemma. Why has Malta, an island with no proven petrochemical reserves not started in earnest to consider tapping Mother Nature’s free renewable energy resources?
The bigger issue here is that Malta currently obtains 100 per cent of its energy from imported fossil fuels which eventually must be replaced by new and renewable wind and solar power technologies.
For the past decade we saw a number of scientific studies conducted at university exploring the use of free sources of energy but no commercial success has been achieved so far.
In the meantime, while taxes collected from petroleum products are a relatively easy means of filling up the national coffers, we should set aside part of these taxes for a project that reduces health and environmental damage resulting from burning fossil fuels.
Critics of alternative energy say that tapping wind or solar energy is fraught with problems. To begin with, a massive capital outlay is needed for a small community with a comparatively long payback period. Land limitation is also a major obstacle to progress in this field. Environmental lobbyists and armchair-pundits ask where will the huge turbine farms be located?
The answer is not easy to find but luckily problems of space – once insurmountable in the 1980s - have been solved by recent advancements in turbine technology.
The soaring cost of fossil fuels is changing the economics of the energy market.
Modern design facilitates a wind machine having only a minimal “footprint” and does not require fencing and it does not cause any disturbance to adjacent agricultural land.
On the contrary, landowners in the EU or US typically seek to have wind machines installed on their property since, once installed, the machine is a source of income and they can continue to use the land for its original agricultural purpose.
Today’s technology has made long strides in improving the design of rotor blades shape. Technology is much upgraded so that each generator can rotate at variable speeds thus ensuring higher energy output and lower noise level. Longer blades, some 40 metres long rotate more slowly, preventing the killing of migrating birds.
The turbines are non-polluting since only small amounts of lubricating oil, hydraulic and insulating fluids are used. They are virtually noiseless as the noise generated by the rotating rotor blades is rendered inaudible by the noise of the wind itself. The turbines are aesthetically acceptable.
Due to modern design when winds reach a critical velocity, the turbines are programmed to shut down while lightning protection systems guard the electronics that constantly monitor the performance of the units.
In a tiny island such as ours it is unavoidable that both power stations are located close to densely populated areas. Wind farms, in fact, when properly installed and aesthetically grouped present a beautiful sight on a wintry day. In addition to assessing the suitability of local prevailing wind conditions, authorities must consider other factors that need to be addressed in relation to wind turbines. To start with, given that suitability for large wind projects in Malta is limited due to our size one such proposal has been submitted for consideration by the authorities for a wind farm set up on the high grounds on Marfa Ridge to generate energy from wind turbines. In Scotland it has been declared that they are targeting 18 per cent of energy to come from wind by 2010. Mother Nature can come to our rescue if we play our cards well.

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Editor: Kurt Sansone
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