Jan 23, 2009

Peak Oil, Gas, Coal and Uranium... Peak prosperity?

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One of the biggest energy conference in the world that is being attended by key policy makers, financiers, leading academics and no less than 400 journalists from all over the world opened with a prince who spoke about the lessons that we need to learn from the collapse of historic civilizations in perspective to the four peaks of oil, gas, coal and uranium that await us.
From  A Prince and Four Peaks: Peak Oil, Gas, Coal and Uranium speech:
Ladies and gentlemen, did you know that when the Roman Empire finally collapsed, large parts of Europe had been deforested. Acres of forestland had been cleared for farmland and to provide firewood. Wood and food were essential, to maintain the Roman Empire. To meet their short term needs, the Romans overexploited their prime energy resource. They did not think about the consequences for later generations. So the demise of a seemingly invincible civilization was partially due to the unsustainable use of their prime energy resource. The question is, are we going to be any wiser?

What the Romans were experiencing, we would now describe as peak wood. Reaching a point of maximum production after which it enters terminal decline. We are now facing a century of at least four undesirable peaks, peak oil, peak gas, peak coal and peak uranium. Mountaineers may be proud to conquer peaks, but there is no reason whatsoever for us to be proud. We can, however, change the course of history. The technologies we need are there.

On a global level, the sun and the deserts present us with major opportunity. We know all energy resources originate from one source, one masdar, nuclear fusion from the surface of the sun. Arab traders sailed the Indian Ocean, long before Europeans ventured into these regions. The same winds Columbus used were there, generated by the sun's heat to make his historic journeys. My wife and I traveled to this beautiful city by plane, with fossil energy generated millions of years ago by that same sun. If it were up to the sun we would have no energy problems at all. Every 30 minutes the earth absorbs enough light to meet the energy needs for one year. Every 30 minutes, if only we could harvest it. To do so we need the world's deserts. Many regard deserts as a barren and hostile environment. In fact, they are a precious source of life, which we should embrace and protect for the common good.

The point is, if we don’t treat energy as a long term investment, we will end up paying much higher bills. But we mustn’t wait until solar energy plants and cross border grids are available for sustainable energy supplies. We need to invest at the local level too. Technologies for local production of sustainable energy are readily available for both electricity and local cooling. These technologies can be applied without a large infrastructure, making them more promising than existing examples. There are three examples I would like to share with you today, two designed in the Netherlands and a third a joint venture between Canadian and Spanish scientists and entrepreneurs.

The first is the green greenhouse, a new generation of greenhouses that produces not only plants and food but also clean electricity, heating and cooling. One transformed, greenhouse can provide sufficient energy for 200 homes. The green greenhouses produce biogas for electricity generation and uses the CO2 thus generated to stimulate the growth of plants. This process also produces water of drinking quality.

The second example is vacuum sewerage for toilet and kitchen disposal. The sewage is used locally for the production of biogas. The pipelines are only half the size of the normal pipelines, giving higher flexibility for construction. Both CO2 emissions and water use are reduced by 50%. No larger infrastructure is required and developing regions are presented with the opportunity to obtain much better water conditions.

The third example is the production of clean energy by a new, completely closed system of garbage gasification in small units. 99.8% of the total garbage supply is re-used or converted, producing 80% more biogas then it uses. No water is wasted during the process. On the contrary, water is one of the products.

What makes all these technologies interesting is that they contribute to the solution of the energy problem and also help in other areas. They help us reduce water scarcity and get rid of excess waste, and present new economic opportunities in developing regions. Contrary to general belief, they are no more costly than the traditional polluting production processes. In fact, they result in substantial savings. The payback time, in green greenhouses for example, is only three years.

So, ladies and gentleman, we know the technologies are there, for both global and local solutions. We need the political will and the right approach to investment for a fundamental transition toward a new energy system. We owe it to our children and to future generations. Investments in sustainable solutions make our communities healthier, our planet cleaner, our economy stronger, and our future brighter.

Let us look beyond the current financial and economic crisis and build the foundations of a sustainable future. As a result of this crisis, billions of dollars of public spending are needed to build better economies and generate economic growth. If we spend wisely in sustainable solutions, these investments will also contribute towards rescuing our planet.
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