Meeting growing needs

François Roussely
calls for a long-term strategy that is in the public interest.

Energy is one of the central issues of the 21st century. We have to find a way of satisfying the growing needs of the human population – the vast majority still living in poverty – without plundering the resources that will be needed by future generations, without polluting our ecosystems or disrupting the biosphere, and without putting undue pressure on the energy-rich regions of the world.

The first problem we face is the explosion in demand, due both to the huge increase in population and to the efforts of some of the most densely populated regions of the world to develop their economies. In just one generation, the world population has increased by nearly 2 billion, a rise of 33 per cent. This has mainly taken place in developing countries where energy consumption is 0.8 tonnes of oil equivalent per capita, compared with 4.8 in industrialized ones. More than 2 billion human beings still do not have access to commercial energy.

The World Energy Council forecasts that global energy consumption will rise by 50 per cent between 1990 and 2020 unless there is a dramatic increase in poverty: electricity consumption is expected to double. And this would only be a partial narrowing of the gap between the developing and industrialized worlds’ energy use.

Fortunately, there are abundant immediate energy resources: 250 years of coal reserves, 40 years of oil, 70 of gas. The problems mainly lie in making energy choices that are heedless of the future of the planet and its inhabitants. We all know that burning fossil fuels leads to massive emissions of greenhouse gases which risk disrupting the climate. We know that even if energy resources are plentiful, every particle of oil, gas or coal consumed today will be lacking tomorrow. We see that the unequal distribution of hydrocarbon resources around the world is already a cause of global conflict.

Nevertheless, fossil fuels are still used for most transport and other needs – including more than 60 per cent of global electricity generation. Since 1992 (the Rio Summit), carbon dioxide emissions have increased by an average 100 million tonnes a year. This presents enormous challenges. But we have no intention of giving up, and know what needs to be done to ensure sustainable development.

Experience in the industrialized countries has taught us that offering families and businesses – where energy efficiency is a major concern – ‘green’ energy services that meet demanding environmental criteria has become a commercial asset.

Developing countries will be able to skip the stage we went through for several decades, where the growth in industrial production went hand in hand with increased pollution – provided that we can ensure the transfer of efficient technologies to them. China’s Beijing Blue project – in which the EDF (Electricité de France) group is involved – is planning to replace the capital’s old coal-fired boilers with combined-cycle power plants fuelled with natural gas, thus massively reducing local pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. In Mali, where we are electrifying several villages, we are also distributing low-consumption lights. Access to energy requires access to efficient utilization technologies.

Fossil fuels will have to be used for a long time to come: their consumption will continue to rise even if we manage to reduce their relative proportion in the world’s mix of fuels. That is one more reason for channelling oil consumption towards specific uses, and for confining energy generation to gas (which is cleaner) and, above all, to coal, whose abundance and distribution avoids geostrategic problems. The development of ‘clean’ technologies, such as fluidized beds and gasification, should reduce coal’s environmental impact.

At the same time, we should be developing renewable energies, especially the first and most powerful of them, water. The world’s hydroelectric power potential is far from being fully exploited.

The EDF group’s experiments with wind power in Italy, the Caribbean and Morocco, with solar energy in Germany, France, Mali and Brazil, geothermal energy in Guadeloupe and biomass in France and Réunion demonstrate the economic viability of these solutions under certain conditions.

But we have to recognize that nuclear power and large-scale hydroelectric power plants are the only alternatives to fossil fuels for producing massive amounts of cheap electricity without greenhouse gas emissions. I believe that industrialized countries have a duty to use them – and to improve the technology and waste management processes – so as to enable the developing countries to access energy generation techniques that are easier to implement. Nuclear power remains the main method of electric power generation in Europe, where it represents 35 per cent of total output.

The world will build as many power plants in the next 20 years as it did in the entire 20th century. It is an opportunity to make the right investment decisions.

Although the necessary resources and technology already exist, we have to ensure that everyone can benefit from them. The globalization of trade is encouraging major energy groups to invest in developing countries. Formulae such as Build Operate Transfer (BOT) contracts allow a country to open its doors to investors who will hand over the power plants after operating them for 15 to 20 years. A number of our installations around the world are based on contracts of this kind. But the serious energy shortages in Brazil and California show that even strong growth areas are finding it difficult to achieve the necessary level of investment.

Giving access to energy to the world’s poorest people requires appropriate solutions. We are developing these both in France and in deprived urban districts of South Africa and Latin America, by delivering a quality service and being profitable. Similarly, we have proved that it is possible to electrify remote villages using decentralized systems through local companies paid according to consumption.

But these solutions are not automatic. Their success does not just come from market forces. Fierce competition can lead to a certain short-sightedness, and businesses are often forced to seek rapid returns on investment. This favours investing in thermal power stations rather than in hydroelectric energy – and, indeed, investing in something other than energy.

There was even a move to divide up large energy groups to encourage competition. This hindered economic efficiency and limited the capacity for research and development, vital for opening up new approaches like fuel cells or the use of hydrogen.

We have learned from experience that the success of BOT contracts or energy solutions for impoverished customers requires cooperation between the supplier, the authorities and community associations. Energy policy should not depend solely on private contracts. It concerns the whole community.

A willing, stable, just and democratic institutional environment is needed to guarantee long-term policy in the public interest. International development aid systems need to be strengthened and regulations introduced to favour the energies that spare fossil resources.

The energy industry demands plenty of space for considering public interest, as well as opportunity for debate

François Roussely is Chairman of Electricité de France.

PHOTOGRAPH: P. Gleizes/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Secure and sustainable | Fuelling multilateralism | Meeting growing needs | Make way for the zero-litre car | Power sharing | Oil and rising water | Energetic challenges | At a glance: Energy | Competition | Power to the people | Cutting carbon | Winds of change | Power and choice | Rising sun | Give us a wave! | Less energy, more wealth

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Climate and Action December 1998
Issue on Climate change December 1997

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Climate change
Air pollution