martedì 24 maggio 2011

Tackling the energy challenge

The Business Times - May 24 2011
The solution in the medium term lies in energy efficiency and conservation, as well as renewable energies, says PASQUALE PISTORIO

FOSSIL fuels represent 80 per cent of the world's primary energy consumption today and have been extremely important for the economic and social evolution of humanity, since they are at the base of the industrial revolution and have fuelled the economic growth of the world in the last couple of centuries.

Controversial: The Fukushima disaster highlights the safety issue of nuclear energy, but even if accidents of this type could be controlled, nuclear waste treatment is still a problem
However, in the last several decades, since the end of World War II, the excessive and continuous growth in the consumption of fossil fuels has become one of the greatest problems of humanity due to at least five major reasons - pollution of water, land, and air, political instability, economic impact of the growing prices and the variability of fossil fuels, the burden they impose on the development of poor countries that don't have access to fossil fuels and global warming that has already a disastrous impact on society.

Humanity must become independent as fast as possible from the slavery of fossil fuels. There has been in recent years a debate on a possible rush into heavy investments in nuclear power plants.

However, the nuclear solution, using the most modern technologies today industrially available - also known as third generation - is not viable for many reasons listed below: Cost. Several studies, including from the Department of Energy of the United States (DOE), indicate that the cost of energy projected to the year 2020 will be significantly higher from nuclear reactors compared with fossil fuels or wind power plants (even solar photovoltaic or solar thermodynamic that today is more expensive than all other sources will be by the year 2020 cheaper than nuclear and fossil fuels). Timing. It would take several decades and huge amounts of money to bring up a broad system of nuclear power plants in the world, capable of changing substantially the energy supply that today represents only 7 per cent - from nuclear power plants - of the world power supply. However, there is widespread opposition of large sectors of the world population to new nuclear power plant installations. Safety. The Fukushima disaster brings back the safety issue due to accidents, but even if accidents of this type could be controlled, the issue of nuclear waste treatment still remains unsolved. Risk. There is a chance of proliferation of nuclear weapons that would increase if some country channels the nuclear technology from civil use into military use. The availability of uranium. This is estimated to have world reserves economically exploitable for the next 70 to 80 years, at the present rate of consumption. If it triples, nuclear power generation would move from the current 7 per cent to something like more than 20 per cent, then the consumption of uranium would bring down the world availability of the resource to less than three decades - that is, less than the life cycle of a new nuclear power plant.

The present nuclear technologies are not viable, and the world must continue to invest in research to develop future forms of nuclear power - like the fourth generation, or the Thorium-based reactors, or the fusion, or the cold fusion - but should not invest in new power plants with the current most modern technologies.

In the next 20 to 40 years, there will be new nuclear power technologies, capable of providing abundant, safe, and cheap energy, that will become available by the second half of this century.

So, what can be done to address the energy challenge in the medium term? The answer - at least for the next three decades - is energy efficiency and energy conservation, as well as renewable energies.

STMicroelectronics has been and is a leader in the field of environmental responsibility. The success of our environmental programme can be simply quantified by the savings achieved by the company. In the 11 years from 1994 - the baseline year - to 2004, the company saved US$900 million thanks to environmentally related projects with cumulative investments of US$300 million and therefore a net savings of US$600 million.

In electrical energy we actually exceeded the 5 per cent energy reduction target year after year per unit of production, which translates into 1.7 terawatt-hour of energy savings every year at the end of the period, and thus sparing the planet the equivalent of one power plant of 220 megawatts.

A broad programme of energy conservation and energy efficiency can be embraced by government institutions at the political level to make country-wide energy policies. To do so, institutions must use three basic instruments - incentives to correct the past, regulations to orientate the future and education to change the lifestyle of all citizens towards a sustainable society.

With those kinds of programmes and using also renewable sources of energy, countries and entire macroeconomic systems can move towards sustainable development, becoming more and more independent from fossil fuels without the need for nuclear power of the current technology generation.

Europe has been a leader in this field. It has already set up the 20/20/20 programme which aims by the year 2020 to cut 20 per cent the energy consumption versus 1990, to reduce at least by 20 per cent the carbon dioxide emission, and to have 20 per cent at least of energy coming from renewable sources.

But many countries in Europe are more aggressive than that. Germany, for example, and all Scandinavian countries are targeting 30 per cent emission reduction. Sweden has the ambitious plan of having zero equivalent emission by 2025, Copenhagen to be a zero emission metropole by 2025 and just recently Britain has set the goal to cut by 50 per cent carbon dioxide emissions by 2025.

Europe has been a leader but other macroeconomic systems are moving very fast, such as the US in the current administration and China in the last several years.

In conclusion, a study published this year by the WWF called the Energy Report said that basically all the world's energy needs can be supplied by a very aggressive energy efficiency programme that would reduce the world energy demand of 2050 by 15 per cent versus 2005 and by generating nearly the entire remaining energy demand from renewable sources, relegating the nuclear and fossil fuels generation to a very marginal role.

Such scenario will be adequate to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 versus the 1990 level, making it possible to limit the temperature increase of the planet within the critical two degrees Celsius.

The net cost to implement this scenario would be about US$1 trillion a year, growing to nearly US$2 trillion by 2030, declining thereafter and achieving net savings from 2040 that will grow rapidly to nearly US$4 trillion per year by 2050.

The writer is the honorary chairman of STMicroelectronics and its former chief executive officer

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