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Will earthquake-hit Japan herald a “greener” energy future?

Tuesday, 15 March 2011 — by

With each passing day, the earthquake and tsunami stricken nuclear reactors skirting the wrecked east coast of Japan bring into sharp focus the questions concerning the reliability of nuclear power. Could the events in Japan hasten development of “greener”, sustainable energy technologies?

First, let’s be clear — the events in Japan are quite unique and unlikely to be repeated any time soon anywhere in the world. That aside, the anti-nuclear protesters in Germany, planned prior to the Japanese disaster, pressed on with their case with a much, much stronger argument on their side, forcing German premier Angela Merkel to declare a “three-month moratorium” on the proposed renew of 17 nuclear plants. Meanwhile in the USA, they choose to press on with nuclear power.

But at what cost? Here, the cost is unlikely to be a human one, certainly not directly. But at a cost to the future of energy production and the environment. History, at times, makes for an excellent observer — whenever there’s an oil crisis, attention turns to alternative energy sources. And right now, not only are we in the grip of a growing oil crisis, but a crisis of conscience regarding the use of nuclear energy.

Nuclear — not a clear answer to the energy question?

As a technology, we never really come to terms with efficiency and containment. And then there’s the reliability of such technologies in the face of natures’ fury. Speaking of which, Mother Nature did an excellent job of showing mankind how to create a reliable, stable nuclear reactor, in the African nation of Gabon, at the heart of the Oklo uranium mine, operating reliably for several hundred thousand years, some 1.8 billion years ago.

Can we emulate this natural technology? Almost certainly. In fact, there are those who’re working on doing just that. However, the problem is one of perception; people just don’t like nuclear power and what it’s capable of.

Now is the time to look to alternative energy technologies, such as solar, wave and wind power. But, we must be mindful of the impact we make on the world around us, and that in many cases, the principle technologies are often bought from the lowest bidders, as is often the case with wind power — if you buy cheap parts and low grade ball bearings, efficiency drops, as does public confidence.

Fossilized thinking versus energy innovation

I don’t think we lack innovations, what we lack is the political will to place sustainable and renewable technologies front and centre, and to fund these technologies appropriately and sufficiently. Right now, consumer electronics and gadgets are a growing burden on our electrical consumption, when this really needn’t be the case — we have the technologies to make our gadgets, to a degree, self sufficient.

There’s certainly a case to be made for instances of political stonewalling, heal-dragging and lobbying pressure from various energy consortia around the world who know only too well that a diverse portfolio of energy sources directly undermines their strangle-hold on energy production, provision and pricing. In short, the energy utilities fear a democrotization of energy production:

“In the short-term, as the myriad novel energy conservation and production technologies come on-line one by one, the utilities will start to hike their prices up. But over the long-term, they’re not going to be able to compete and people will, by then, be aware of the alternatives.

So all the efforts of the utilities to gouge the populous for what little energy we do use will only hasten our mass exodus towards alternative energy sources.”

And then there’s the spectre of “smart grid” energy technology, placing the power to distribute energy in the hands of everyone:

“I would also add that the demand from the domestic market for Smart Grid technologies will increase in the next two to three years. Why? Partly out of a ‘do good by the environment’ desire of people like thee & me, but mostly because energy costs are on the rise and we all want to cut costs where possible. Greater energy efficiency is as good a place to start as any.”

Power to the people

Recent events in Japan, however awful, could prove the necessary spark to initiate a swing towards renewable and sustainable energy technologies. But for this to work, pressure must come from the populous, to give power to the people…

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