A Fuel’s Paradise: Is Grid-based Electricity Really the Best Solution?
September 6, 2002

BERKELEY: The author poses with his solar radio, two solar lamps, a solar flashlight, solar battery-charger, solar panel and solar box cooker. Last month, the author's two-bedroom home consumed only 6.6 therms of natural gas and less than 53 kWh of electricity - a reduction of more than 50 percent from the previous year. According to the World Bank, the author is living in a state of "fuel poverty." Credit: Kat Schaaf / The-Edge
The human species, for all its cleverness, has a hard time matching words with deeds. The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) is a case-in-point.

With the best intentions (for the most part), 100 world leaders, 12,000 official delegates and an estimated 33,000 civil society observers and activists flew tens of thousands of miles to attend long days of marathon meetings, negotiations, workshops and demonstrations.

The Johannesburg Climate Legacy (JCL) estimates that this global gathering will produce 500,000 tons of CO2 — most of it attributable to jet exhaust and fumes from the production of electric energy needed to power the ten-day summit.

Fortunately, the JCL is composed of an ambitious group of humans who have assumed the challenge of funding enough sustainable energy projects to “offset or negate the environmental impacts of WSSD.” The JCL concedes that “such a scheme has never been attempted on such a scale.” In order to pull it off, the JCL needs to raise $5 million.

The five-year program will support carbon-cutting projects in South Africa. The campaign is being managed by Future Forests, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature [www.iucn.org] and the International Institute of Energy Conservation [www.cerf.org/iiec]. To find out more about the campaign, contact Future Forests [4 Great James St., London, WC1N 3DA, UK, www.climatelegacy.org].

Dirty Electrons: The Fuels of Perdition
The WSSD suffers from a problem that afflicts the entire planet: Over-reliance on forms of energy that produce a host of deadly chemical by-products and clouds of climate changing fumes.

The major source of industrial pollution in the US can be traced to the plants that churn out electrons for the country’s sprawling power grid. Government figures from 1998 estimated that producing electricity accounted for more that two-thirds of the sulfur dioxide that helps form acid rain, one-quarter of the NOx emissions responsible for urban smog and 40 percent of the carbon emissions that fuel global climate change.

If the fuel is coal, the plant’s smokestacks will expel more CO2 than an oil-fired plant. In the US, coal produces 57 percent of our electricity. One-third of all mercury spilled into the aid Americans breathe pours from the chimneys of coal-burning electric plants.

Oil-fired plants pump a good portion of the Periodic Table into the atmosphere in a chemical cloud jam-packed with arsenic, beryllium, cadmium and nickel. Add to that a host of deadly combustion by-products including dioxin, furans, PCBs and radioactive gases.

Large oil-fired and nuclear-fueled powerplants work up a real sweat spinning out electricity. Because of this, they demand awesome volumes of water for cooling and maintenance. The Salem Nuclear Generating Station on Delaware Bay chugs down 3 billion gallons of bay water a day. A Pace University study on the “Environmental Costs of Electricity” determined that the 90 powerplants surrounding the Great Lakes, “kill in excess of 40 million fish per year.”

Even hydropower dams have environmental downsides. They exist by stealing waterflow from pre-existing watersheds, throwing downstream riparian ecosystems out of whack, eliminating native fish and wildlife, and creating impounded lagoons of silt laden with ever-increasing concentrations of mercury, selenium and other toxic heavy metals.

The researchers with Pace University’s PowerScorecard [www.powerscorecard.org] argue that the best bet to fuel large centralized powerplants is natural gas. Natural gas (methane) is generated by the natural decay of plant and animal matter (not to mention municipal landfills). Pound for pound, methane has 20 times the heat-trapping ability as CO2. Burning the methane, Pace U argues, prevents it from rising into the atmosphere to compound the atmospheric algebra that creates the Greenhouse Effect.

Appropriate Fuels for Appropriate Technologies
“Technology has transformed urban life,” the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports. However, the FAO adds, technology “has been slower to transform life in the rural areas of developing countries. Technologies that only have application in these areas receive a relatively small proportion of global research and development expenditure, despite the fact they stand to benefit billions of people.”

Some technologies that promise to make a difference include small gas turbines, gasifiers, certain hybrid systems and fuel cells. “The renewable energies, such as photovoltaics and wind power, should find good application in rural areas.”

Fortunately, there are some encouraging new alternatives. “The rural population worldwide aspires to clean and affordable cooking fuels,” the Bellagio Foundation notes. And the solution is not to be found in the rosy glow of an electric coil: instead, it is being found in a can of plant oil.

India already produces more than 8.5 million tons of plant-oil fuel a year. The Bellagio Foundation reports that plant-oil fuels have “numerous ecological, economical and social advantages.” In addition to supplanting firewood and kerosene, a transition to plant-oil fuels will provide “new incentives to intensify the planting of trees and bushes which will help to prevent further soil erosion.” The by-products are non-toxic and can be used as livestock fodder or fertilizer.

The other element of the cooking issue is the cooking device itself. A new generation of redesigned pressurized gas stoves and cooking pots is now starting to appear around the world. The Bellagio Foundation will be introducing some 10,000 affordable, highly efficient cooking stoves over the next three years.

The Bellagio Foundation claims that its plant-oil-fueled stove “has the potential to revolutionize the cooking fuel system currently prevalent in most poor rural regions of the world.” The new stove (which is billed as the first stove in history to run on “any kind of plant-oil fuel”) produces the same amount of heat as a wood fire but generates 370 times less hydrocarbon emissions, 15 times less NOx and 120 times less carbon monoxide.

Plant oil is about as efficient as kerosene but is far less flammable, making it safer to store and to handle. The stove was designed so that it could be manufactured anywhere in the world with simple tools, local materials and sold at a competitive price.

Plant oils are abundantly available in many of the poorest regions of the world and the market price for coconut oil is very competitive. Since the stove was introduced in May, inquiries have poured in from across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Cooking with the Sun
Another cheap and proven solution to cooking needs is the solar box cooker. The first solar cooker is believed to have been invented in 1767 by Swiss naturalist Horace de Saussure. There are three basic kinds of solar ovens: box cookers, parabolic cookers and flat panel cookers (a new design that can be built in an hour for next to nothing. The Kakuma Refugee Camp project in Kenya is already selling these cookers for $2 each).

Solar Cookers International [www.solarcooking.org] reports that there now are solar cooking projects in nearly every country. More than 100,000 cookers are in use in India and China. Over the past five years, SCI has provided solar cooking resources and training to more than 16,000 refugee women and their families in East Africa. In Kenya, SCI recently distributed Bernard solar panel cookers to more than 5,000 families.

A single-reflector cooker can easily reach 300 F (150 C) but such high temperatures aren’t really needed for effective cooking. A solar oven will cook fine as long as temperatures hit about 200 F (90 C). Higher temperatures cook larger quantities faster, but many users prefer to cook at lower temperatures, since then they can leave the food to cook while they go about their business. Different foods can be placed in different pots. At the end of the day, SCI says, “each pot will cook to perfection and stay hot until you take it out.”

It takes about twice as long to cook with single-reflector solar oven. (SCI claims that the high cookbook temperatures for conventional ovens “are just for convenience and for special effects such as quick browning.”) In most cases, single-reflector solar ovens don't need to be re-turned to face the sun. One exception is if you want to cook beans, which can take up to 5 hours.

Fully functional solar ovens can be quickly made from cardboard boxes, clear plastic, black paint and aluminum foil. Some SCI members have used the same cardboard cookers for more than 10 years.

In 1994, SCI volunteers developed The Cookit, “the world’s simplest solar cooker.” The Cookit features a foil-covered cardboard panel that directs sunshine onto a dark pot sealed inside an oven roasting bag. Two to three hours of sunshine is sufficient to cook enough food for 5-6 people.

The Cookit can also pasteurize contaminated water in several hours, without the roasting bag. This could be a godsend for the estimated 1.2 billion people who lack access to safe drinking water.

SCI sells its Cookit’s for $20. For each Cookit sold, SCI is able to provide another Cookit to a refugee family in Kenya. Try using a Cookit this summer, SCI suggests, and you will not only reduce peak load electrical demand, you’ll also “get some delicious meals in return.”

One Coal-fired Plant or 2.6 Million Solar Rooftops
In April 2001, the UN hosted a meeting of environmental experts to discuss how best to advance the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Mohamed El-Ashry, the CEO and Chair of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) warned that “if we keep on encouraging countries to generate energy by burning fossil fuels, we threaten not just to push them further into debt, but also to pollute the air they breathe and increase global warming.”

Uganda’s Energy Minister Syda Bbumba noted that “Solar panels cost between $600 and $800,” which puts them out of reach of most poor countries. In addition to cost, the panel identified several other hurdles including lack of technical expertise, maintenance skills and manufacturing resources.

Bbumba’s concerns over costs may have been misplaced. In Malaysia, construction on the 700-MW Manjun coal-fired powerplant has already cost the government $1.8 billion. Had the same amount of money been invested in renewable energy, it could have placed solar panels on 2.6 million roofs. Those rooftop panels could have generated a collective 360 MW of electricity. Since roof-top power stations don’t experience the massive “line loss” suffered by long-distance transmission lines, investing in decentralized solar solutions becomes even more competitive.

The panel’s report “Renewable Energy: GEF Partners with Business for a Better World,” put the profit spin on saving the Earth and rescuing the poor. “If renewable energy captures just three percent of the market in developing nations within 10 years, investments could exceed $5 billion a year,” El-Ashri emphasized.

Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, chair of Royal/Dutch Shell Group and co-chair of a G8 Task Force on renewable energies had a businessman’s take on the problem. “If we want to drag the costs down, we have to expand the market. And the biggest market is in the developing countries.”

Former Brazilian Energy Minister Jose Goldemberg emphasized that it was critical to make a global shift to renewables because access to energy would soon become “a major cause” of political instability. “In 15 years,” Goldemberg warned, “the developing countries will be consuming as much energy as the developed countries.”

That assumes, of course, that the essential revolution that carries the world from fossil fuels to renewables will not be accompanied by an equally essential revolution toward reduced consumption and increased efficiency.

Solutions for the US: A Call for an ‘Energy Sabbath’

BERKELEY: In the US, the world's most heavily electrified country, it is estimated that 34 million citizens live in poverty. Credit: Gar Smith/The-Edge
Many members of the European Union are already beginning the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. In the US, many cities are taking the lead in this revolution. These municipal pioneers included San Francisco (where a solar bond initiative passed last year) and two Colorado towns, Boulder (which has developed a Green Building program) and Fort Collins (which is purchasing significant amounts of wind-generated electricity).

On August 28, Nebraska announced completion of a 10.5-MW windpower complex. New York will spend $1.8 million to install solar power in as many as 50 school districts. And even George W. Bush’s home state has introduced a new lesson plan in its schools, “The Infinite Power of Texas,” which predicts that the state’s future growth lies in renewable resources, not oil [www.InfinitePower.org]. On September 20-22, the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association and the Texas Solar Energy Society will host the Third Annual Renewable Energy Roundup in Fredericksburg [www.renewableenergyroundup.com].

As a self-proclaimed born-again Christian, George W. should be expected to hold sacred the covenant of the Sabbath as a day of rest.

The-Edge is proposing an “Energy Sabbath” — one day of the week when all non-essential work (and the energy required to fuel it) is suspended.

In 2001, the US consumed an astounding 7.2 billion barrels of oil. If the US committed to a total “energy Sabbath” (admittedly an impossibly ambitious goal), this would instantly cut US oil consumption by 14.3 percent, saving nearly 102 million barrels of oil.

In 1999, the US’ combustion of fossil fuels produced 5.5 trillion tons of CO2. An Energy Sabbath would eliminate the production of 766 billion tons of CO2 — enough to bring the country on the path toward compliance with the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

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