Transport and Energy
Clearing the bottlenecks

Siv Fridleifsdottir explores how to make the 21st century an age of renewable energy.

From the moment that the first woman, or man, learned to harness fire, energy use has been central to the progress of humankind. The industrial revolution was powered by coal. Oil is the lifeblood of the modern economy. Meanwhile, lack of access to modern energy services is a serious obstacle to development for more than one third of mankind.

Burning hydrocarbons is – and has been – our main source of energy. Dung and vegetation are still important fuels in many parts of the world, but the 20th century was a century of fossil fuels – coal, natural gas, but above all, oil. These fuel sources will eventually run out, although new reserves are constantly being discovered. The true limit to the use of fossil fuels, however, is not supply, but the effect their emissions have on the air we breathe and on the atmosphere. We are faced with climatic disaster unless we can find alternative ways to quench our thirst for energy.

Is there an alternative? Fortunately, yes. The Earth is awash with clean and renewable energy. Wind, hydro, geothermal and solar energy could easily meet our present and future needs, combined with modern technologies for the sustainable use of biomass fuels. Technology to harness this bountiful energy has been evolving quickly. Scenarios indicate that renewables will contribute 20-50 per cent of energy supplies in the second half of the 21st century; perhaps even as much as 80 per cent by its end. There is little doubt that this will be the renewable energy century.

Yet progress is slow. If we exclude traditional biomass, renewables now account for only 4-5 per cent of world energy use. Fossil-fuel technologies are still often the cheapest option, and certainly the most easily available. Can we do anything to bring the renewable energy future closer, other than wait for further technological progress?

Again, the answer is ‘yes’. The World Energy Council estimates that the so-called ‘new renewables’ – solar, wind, geothermal and similar – might contribute 3-4 per cent of the world’s energy needs in 2020 with minimum policy support, but 8-12 per cent with major policy support. Active policy support could thus make a huge difference, both in terms of more people enjoying basic access to energy, and in curbing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Finding the right price
This support can take many forms. One is setting the right price signal. At present, the health and environmental costs of fossil fuels are often not calculated in their market price – and nor are the corresponding benefits of renewables. Simply correcting the price signals could enable renewables more easily to pass the threshold of becoming competitive.

We also need to improve access to proven and cost-effective renewable technologies, especially in developing countries. Capacity building, training experts and technology cooperation can stimulate their introduction.

Geothermal energy, for example, is now exploited in 58 countries, and has immense potential, not least in developing nations. The technology is proven and cost effective: in some developing countries, it is the least costly option for new electricity generation capacity. In countries where local expertise and capacity has been acquired – such as the Philippines, Kenya and some Central American countries – it has become an important and growing source of power, with 8-22 per cent of total electricity generated from geothermal steam. The bottlenecks hindering its more intense and widespread use are not a lack of geothermal fields or proven technologies, but poor access to finance as well as the lack of trained experts and local capacity. The same is probably true of other renewable energy technologies in other countries.

Building capacity
We should not try to pick winners from amongst the renewable energy technologies, but we do need a strategy to build up capacity and disseminate proven technologies much faster than at present, to enable them to become a real option.

In Iceland, we are lucky to have abundant resources of clean and renewable energy in our powerful rivers and rich geothermal fields. We have been able to take advantage of this, so that today about two thirds of our total energy budget comes from renewable sources. This not only saves on imported fuels, but has had positive effects on the environment. The geothermal heating works in Reykjavik, the first of its kind in the world, put an end to the coal smoke over the city and boosts Reykjavik’s claim to having some of the cleanest air of any urban area.
Lack of access to modern energy services is a serious obstacle to development
Just about all of Iceland’s stationary energy is provided by renewables, but almost all the energy required for transport and the fishing fleet comes from oil. This may be starting to change. The development of cleaner fuels and more energy-efficient engines holds great promise. But policy makers must give new and promising technologies a boost. An experimental project in Iceland is examining the feasibility of using hydrogen for buses and other vehicles. Another project uses methane from a local landfill to run vehicles. Such projects may help bring the age of renewables a bit closer.

We are playing with fire as we continue to burn up the hydrocarbons stored in the Earth. We can now glimpse a future where the energy needed for our homes, industries and transport is virtually pollution free. Our task and our duty is to speed up this development

Siv Fridleifsdottir is Minister for the Environment, Iceland.

PHOTOGRAPH: Jose Roig Vallespir/UNEP/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Driving change | Clearing the bottlenecks | Commuting sustainably (Singapore) | Transported to the future (Curitiba, Brazil) | Bucking the trend (Freiburg, Germany) | Message from the UN Secretary-General | Message from Cuba | Message from Turin | Competition | Breaking free | Calling for change | Reaching the unreached | Greening the screen | Taking the lead | Wanted: more good reporters | On the dot | The city century

Complementary articles in other issues:
Madeleine K. Albright: Changing course (The Environment Millenium) 2000
John Prescott: Gain not pain (The Environment Millenium) 2000
José María Figueres Olsen and Christiana Figueres: A climate of change (Beyond 2000) 2000
Rubens Ricupero: The new green marketplace (Climate and Action) 1998
Tony Blair: Opportunity: not obstacle (Climate and Action) 1998
Jai Narain Prasad Nishad: Turning to the sun (Climate change) 1997
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker and Herman E. Ott: Tax bads, not goods (Climate and Action) 1998