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Talking Points

Free Energy? Or Myopic Oligarchy?

By AF Keck.
Illustration: Matt Ward.

“The stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” ~ Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, former Saudi Oil minister, 1970s “The use of solar energy has not been opened up because the oil industry does not own the sun.” ~ Ralph Nader, 1980 DISINGENUOUS DISINFORMATION

The fossil fuel lobby (particularly in the US) has focused its efforts to obfuscate the issue of global warming with four major arguments:

1. There is no real evidence that global temperatures have risen as a result of human activity.
2. Computer models of climate change have predicted far more warming than satellite records actually show.
3. Responding effectively to climate change is simply too expensive. It will cost the US economy billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs.
4. There’s no point in the industrial world doing anything to curb emissions of heat-trapping gases, since developing countries like China and India will produce most of the heat-trapping gases in the future.

However as the science has firmed up during the 1990s through today, and better datasets have become available, the first two arguments have effectively collapsed. They are only used for public posturing before poorly briefed audiences while being effectively abandoned within the negotiations themselves. The scientific consensus around climate change is now essentially unshakeable.


The abandonment of effective scientific dissent has forced the fossil fuel lobby to switch from promoting junk science, to pitching junk economics. They fervently conjure up extreme visions of industrial collapse and widespread unemployment (600,000 job losses annually is the favoured figure of the Global Climate Coalition) but show little grasp of real-world economics.

Their models also simply ignore the massive potential job implications of developing renewable energy technologies and increasing energy efficiency. Any business activity that can thrive without fossil fuels is simply discounted. Additionally, the fossil lobby consistently fail to predict the economic losses that would follow from inaction on climate change, for instance the numerable studies by the insurance industry of mounting losses from climate-related disasters.

In February 1997, 2,000 economists, including six Nobel laureates, signed a statement arguing that the US should join other nations to take measures to slow climate change and agreed that “preventable steps are justified”. The economists, who were from across the political spectrum, argued that: “Economic studies have determined that there are many potential policies for which the benefits outweigh the costs.”


Despite the failure of many governments to give significant incentives to bring about a green-tech revolution, some smaller European nations such as Iceland, Denmark and Sweden have decided to try and buck this trend on their own. Iceland’s stated goal is to become the first nation run on an entirely hydrogen economy by 2050. They are endeavouring to power the bulk of its transportational infrastructure with hydrogen produced by electricity from surplus renewables such as wind, geo thermal and hydro electricity.

Denmark lies on the eastern margin of the North Sea where ‘wind’ is a prevailing factor. With a population of 5.5 million, the country produces the highest per capita amount of wind energy in the world, some 16% of its total needs. They pioneered this large scale uptake of onshore wind energy by giving people tax breaks to install their own turbines and therefore entire communities an incentive to invest.

Sweden has the lofty ambition of completely weaning itself off oil within 15 years, without having to resort to building new nuclear power plants: quite a bold assertion for a cold northern nation of 9 million people and almost as many cars. The Scandinavian country, which was hard hit by oil price rises in the 1970s, now gets the majority of its electricity from nuclear and hydroelectric power. However, by 2003, 26% of all its energy already came from renewables, compared with an EU average of 6%. In addition to geo-thermal and some solar, its main future source of local renewables is its many hectares of boreal forest. This is a domestic renewable energy resource that can create many jobs, especially in rural areas. Furthermore, bio-fuel from the forest is considered to be carbon dioxide neutral, and as such does not contribute to increasing the greenhouse effect.


All the technologies to change the way we live and still ‘keep the lights on’ fortunately already exist. All that is lacking is the political will to modify and develop these systems to make them economically competitive. The right incentives could promote large-scale production of renewable energy technologies to make them mainstream industries, effectively negating the advantage of heavily government-subsidised fossil fuel (and nuclear) cartels.

Governments and vested interest power companies insistently push for a single global energy solution for all communities and nations. “If its not going to be oil, then it has to coal!” ”OK, you don’t like coal either, well then it’ll have to be nuclear” – a uniform or ‘mono-crop’ sticking plaster for everyone across the board. Instead, perhaps we should consider a more bio-diverse approach, one with many possible solutions which are site and regionally specific. Wherein which technologies are used would be based on local climate, resources, energy requirements, etc. If you live in the desert, bring on the solar panels and the wind turbines! Strong tidal bores and volcanic activity? How about some geo-thermal and hydroelectric action? Better yet, how about a diverse combination of them all?

Generally speaking, most centralised power plants are so far away from their customers that up to 10–15% of power generated is lost in transmission. With solar panels, fuel cells, small scale hydro-power and wind turbines installed in individual homes, the distance for transmission can be metres, instead of miles. Solar power and combined heat and power plants do not need a grid, so all the power produced is either used directly, or by neighbours.

Arguably the best thing about renewable energy is that the raw materials – energy from the sun, wind, waves or heat from the ground or oceans – are there for the harvesting, gratis.

This is probably why many governments and the oil, coal (and uranium mining) corporations don’t like it.

Because if you can’t own the resource, how can you control it?

Meanwhile, in Baghdad….


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