The Clean Energy and Green Technologies-M.S. Srinivasan

Science and Technology will be an important part of the solution to the present ecological crisis.  This article examines some of the prospects, possibilities and difficulties involved in developing sustainable technologies and the limitations of the technological approach to sustainability.

Key Perspectives: energy imperatives; solar hopes; nuclear alternative; task ahead; green technologies; uncertainties of the technological solution.

The Energy Imperatives

The first and the most urgent need in the energy front is an alternative to environmentally destructive coal and oil.  The New York Times correspondent, Thomas Friedman, made the following interesting suggestion to the present American President:

“If President is looking for a legacy project, there is one just crying out. A national science initiative that would be our generations moon-shot: a crash program for alternative energy and conservation to make America energy independent in ten years.  If President makes energy independence his moon-shot, in one fell swoop he would dry up revenue for terrorism, force Iran, Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia into the path of reform¾which they will not do with $50 barrel oil—strengthen the dollar, and improve his own standing in Europe by doing something huge to reduce global warming.  He would also create a real magnet to inspire young people to contribute to both war on terrorism and America’s future by again becoming scientists, engineers and mathematicians” (1)

Thus, as Friedman rightly points out, a crash project on developing a viable alternative to coal and oil, if it succeeds, can have a substantial impact on many vexing problems facing us today like jihadic terrorism, energy crisis and global warming. However this project should not be confined to a single nation or pursued for national self-interest.  It has to be an international project in which all the major economic and industrial powers in the “developing” as well as the “developed” world, and every institution or group with special expertise in the area of energy and environment, have to participate and work together, subordinating their individual self-interest for the well-being and progress of humanity.  This may appear too idealistic, utopian or impractical.  But when the ideal becomes a necessity, and when the survival, success and prosperity of individuals and groups depends on such cooperative effort, then the impractical has to be made practical. As the collective and corporate mind of humanity becomes increasing aware of the close interdependence of human life, as it is happening now under the impact of globalization, it will be forced towards a collaborative effort to solve the common problems confronting it.

This brings us to the question what are the most promising technologies which has the highest potential for solving the energy dilemma.  There are the well-known alternative sources of energy like solar, biomass, nuclear, wind, hydro and geo-thermal.  However not all these alternative sources of energy are entirely “green” or safe.  Nuclear fission technology because of its radiation hazards, problems of waste-disposal, and the possibility of a Chernobyl-type disaster, cannot be relied upon as the main source of energy.  Moreover fission technology is inherently unecological because it breaks the bonds formed by nature in the nucleus of the atom.  And the modern scientific mind doesn’t have the inner vision and the holistic insight of a yogi to see or know the ecological consequences of a fission reaction in the subtler realms of the material nature.  Other renewables like solar photovoltaic cells, biomass, and wind farms, when used on a large scale, require extensive tracks of land and therefore would compete with agriculture, people and ecosystems.  However research and development and funding in these renewable energy technologies should not be slowed down because of their defects.  There must be a continuous and sustained effort to eliminate the defects and enhance the ecological and technical quality and efficiency of these energy sources of the future.  Even if they don’t attain large-scale viability, they can still be extremely useful as small-scale and decentralized sources of green energy.

The Solar Hopes

Among these green energy technologies, one great hope is Solar Power.  The photo-voltaic cell technology, which captures sun-light and converts it to electricity, seems to be at the threshold of a technological and commercial break-through.  According to some industry experts, at present solar photo-voltaic cell is very close to becoming commercially competitive with conventional fuels.  For example, K. Subramanyam, CEO of Tata BP Solar India Ltd states: “its just a matter of time for solar energy to be powering our daily lives” because, from a long-term perspective based on “total life-cycle”, cost of  solar energy is cheaper than conventional fuels.(2) Some Scientists in the US believe that with sufficient investment, the United States could meet as much as 69% of its electricity demand and 35% of all its energy demand, including transport, by 2020 through solar power, with prices comparable with fossil fuels (3).

There are three promising technologies which can bring about a radical and large-scale improvement in the environmental and energy situation of our planet.  They are, in the field of power generation, solar energy harnessed though communication satellites and nuclear fusion.  In the transportation sector, hydrogen fuel cell technology.  The common factor behind the three technologies are that they are solar based.  The difference between fission and fusion technology is that while the former generates energy by splitting the nucleus of an atom, the later tries to tap the energy generated by the fusion of hydrogen atoms, which is the process by which sun generates energy.  Hydrogen fuel cell technology uses solar power to generate hydrogen and use hydrogen to power fuel cells, which combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce energy and water!

Some scientists believe solar power through satellites hold a great promise for the future.  Martin A. Hogger and Heth D. Potter, write in their article in Technology Review: “Satellites can capture vast amount of solar energy and transfer it to earth on uninterrupted beams of microwaves.  Thanks to fleets of low-orbiting satellites to be launched on the coming decade, solar power may be the energy source of the 20th century”. (4) Similarly many automobile and environmental experts believe that hydrogen-powered vehicle is likely to be the locomotive of the future and the green alternative to the petrol or diesel engine.  The advantages of hydrogen fuel are, first, it is free from harmful emissions; second it is silent and has no moving parts; third its efficiency is high, twice that of the petrol engine; fourth, the energy it produces is electrical and therefore it fits in easily with electric motors.(12)  Hydrogen-powered car is in the research and development agenda of almost all the big auto-majors of the world like Ford, Chrysler and Benz.  And the technology has progressed from the laboratory and the drawing board to workable prototypes and some commercial vehicles.  Amory Livon, director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a leading green think tank which has developed a prototype of the Hydrogen-fuelled car, says regarding this new technology:

“Very exciting things are happening in the car business.  It’s just like the era when personal computers started to replace typewriters and it took a while to realise what was going on.  This is going to be the biggest shift in industrial sector after the chip”(5)

The Nuclear Alternative

The other promising source of future energy is nuclear fusion which aims at replicating the process by which Sun generated energy in a nuclear reactor.  There are two types of fusion technologies, “Hot” and “Cold”.  The hot fusion method tries to bring about the fusion of hydrogen atoms under high temperatures.  The hopes of cold fusion research is based on some latest discoveries in experimental physics, which indicate that in some atoms like lithium, under certain conditions, nuclear fusion reactions can be initiated even under much lower temperatures. (6)

However nuclear fusion, after some initial hopes and nearly forty years of research has not made much progress.  One of the reasons could be lack of funding and support from the Government and private sector.  At present nuclear energy industry is entirely based on the fission technology.  Most of the funding on research and development work in the nuclear energy goes to improving the efficiency and productivity of fission technology and making it more safe and clean through fast-breeder or thorium reactor technology or better nuclear waste disposal or recycling strategies.

In the short-term, considering the critical energy situation of our planet, nuclear fission technology and its new and upgraded versions are perhaps necessary.  But in the long-term, policy makers, planner and administrators in the field of science, energy and environment have to think-out how to accelerate research and development in nuclear fusion because ultimately solar power through satellites and nuclear fusion hold the greatest hope for a safe, clean and virtually inexhaustible source of energy for the future.  This means our ultimate aim in the energy front is to slowly phase out the unsafe fission technology and replace it with the solar-based energies.  Interestingly, physicist Otto.R. Fisch, who is one of the inventors of nuclear fission technology said:

“Uranium burning stations, plutonium breeders—-will always remain dangerous to human beings.  I look forward to a world where men no longer depend on fossil fuels—not on coal, wood, oil—nor uranium or hydrogen.  It may take a long time, but man must break the bad habit of using whatever happens to be lying around to meet his growing energy needs.  In the end, he will be compelled to stop his wandering into such thickets of danger and to turn back to the source of all energy.  He must turn to the Sun.” (7)

The Task Ahead

However until we reach this goal of sourcing all energy from the Sun, we have to a certain extent use “whatever happens to be lying around” us, but with an increasing reliance on greener or safer sources of energy, keeping the ultimate goal of a solar-based energy constantly in our view.  Meanwhile, the best alternative inbetween is to have a judicious combination of a large-scale or centralized power made of conventional thermal or nuclear energy linked synergically with a large number of local, decentralized and small-scale renewable energy sources like solar photovoltaic cells, geo-thermal, biomass, tidal or micro hydroelectric.  Even when the solar or nuclear fusion technology becomes commercially viable on a large scale this combination of centralized and decentralized source of renewable energies seem to be the ideal system of energy management.

To make all these promising technologies yield a commercially competitive alternative to conventional energy requires perhaps a focused, well-planned and accelerated research and development project—international, interinstitutional and interdisciplinary—coordinated by a single agency, on the lines of moon-landing or genome project.

The Green Technologies

But clean energy is only one aspect of the technological solution.  The other aspect is the various forms of green technologies which can lead to a cleaner environment but without sacrificing efficiency and economy.  One of the main principle of green technologies is that the technology of man must imitate the technology of nature.  The most prominent aspect of Nature’s technology is Recycling.  In Nature’s economy nothing remains waste because the waste of one organism becomes the food of other organism.  Waste recycling is now a well-known eco-technology widely used in industrial circles all over the world.  One of the reasons for the wide acceptance of this green technology is perhaps it is not only ecological but also economically profitable.  For instance, Tata Steel recycles its grease and oil waste by converting it into fuel for the blast furnace, thereby saving a tidy sum of fuel cost.  Thus, as R.P. Sharma, chief of environment and public health in Tata Steel states: “There is a clear business sense here.  You improve the environment and it directly improves your bottom-line”.  The new concept of Carbon Credit, which pays organizations for reducing the carbon emission, provides further incentives for business for eco-friendly practices.  Some nations have advanced further by incorporating ecological principles at the level of planning.  For example in Denmark, industrial estates are planned and organized in such a way that the waste of one factory becomes a resource for the other.

The other aspect of the technology of Nature is bio-diversity.  Nature never promotes monoculture.  Everything in Nature, forms, species, energy-flows, tends towards a rich diversity.  This aspect of Nature has important implications for energy management and community development.  Creating a diversified eco-system made of biomass or wind energy, aquaculture, livestock development, agri-industires and services like food processing or preservation based on local resources and appropriate technology, cottage and craft industries for women, on a base of traditional or organic farming, is perhaps the most effective eco-development strategy for agricultural and rural communities.

Another new and interesting concept in green technology is the concept of the “living machine”.  A living machine is a mechanism or machine built mainly from living organism of Nature and according to the living process and laws of Nature.  They are machines because they designed and built to do a specific task.  But they are also eco-systems made of living organisms like plants, algae.  They are not only ecological but also more efficient and economical than conventional machinery in environment-related tasks like heating and cooling of buildings, food production, waste treatment and purify air.  John and Nancy Todd, inventors of the concept, describe the rationale and significance of living machine for the present environmental condition of the planet:

“The innumerable and life-endangering environmental ills that currently plague us globally and locally are the byproducts of human cultures deeply estranged from the great natural systems of the planet—The only lasting solution to counter this dynamic is to create consciously symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature.  Such relationship demand nothing less than a fundamental technological revolution designed to integrate advanced societies with the natural world—Among the most encouraging recent development has been the invention of living technologies that literally harness the intelligence, process and organisms found in nature not only to support human societies but to restore damaged and polluted ecosystem”.

The Living Machine is not merely a concept.  Prototypes of them are now being installed through out the US, Canada and UK.  As the inventors of the living machine concept state:

“We have designed and built living machines to grow food, to heat and cool buildings, to bioremediate naturally occurring bodies of water.  It is possible to apply the same kind of biological engineering to the production of high-quality biogas fuels.  Living machines produce byproducts that can be used in the manufacture of materials ranging from paper products to advanced construction materials.  They can be linked together to form an engineered ecology, a living technology that can be designed to protect and nurture natural environment and to support human communities”.

These living technologies, according to Tack and Nancy Todd, will be “upto 10,000 times more effective than conventional technologies” and in terms of energy and chemical inputs, the existing examples of living machines are already “ten to one hundred times more effective”.  Thus the concept of the living machine is a wonderful innovation with immense possibilities for creating living technologies which are in tune with the technology of Nature. (8)

Uncertainties of the Technological Solution

However technology alone is not sufficient to arrive at a lasting solution to the ecological crisis.  The modern educated mind has great faith in science and technology.  Thus most of the technological solutions are tentative and uncertain But most of the technological solutions are uncertain in its results.  When the new green technologies are used on a large-scale, their long-term impact on land-use, people, habitat and environment are not yet fully known.  For example wind-power requires large land-mass which may encroach upon people’s habitat.  Moreover wind mills, when used on a large scale may create great turbulance in the wind-currents and drive away our winged brothers like birds.  Similarly extensive use of solar panels may reduce the amount of sun-light falling on the natural habitat, which has its environmental consequences.  The other factor which is well-known to energy specialists is the equation between the energy generated by the energy-equipment and the energy required to produce the equipment.  If the energy required to produce an equipment is more than the energy generated by it, then the technology is not efficient interms of economics as well ecology.  For example, some of the earlier attempts to produce solar energy through large mirror reflectors were later abandoned, because, making mirrors is a highly energy-intensive industry.  So energy required to produce these mirrors will be much more than the energy generated by them!

Thus most of the technological solutions are tentative and uncertain.  When a new technology is invented, it holds a great promise for solving problems and creating a better life.  But as the technology begins to be applied on a large-scale, its limitations become more and more apparent.  There are here two lessons to learn.  The first lesson is that when a new technology is deployed, there must be a parallel attempt, through visionary and proactive research and thinking, to understand its long-term and holistic impact on the totality of human life and Nature.  This cannot be done by an exclusively rational or scientific mind.  It requires a higher-than-rational intuition, which the scientific mind has to acquire by appropriate discipline.  The other lesson is that, though science and technology will be an important factor in solving many of the material, economic and environmental problems confronting humanity, we must not rely entirely on technology.  We must also think of other solutions in the moral, psychological and spiritual realms, which may perhaps lead to a more lasting remedy.

References

  1. Martin Friedman, The world is Flat, p.35
  2. Business Today, Dec. 14, 2007
  3. The Hindu, Dec. 27, 2005
  4. Martin A. Hogger and Heth D. Potter, Beam Down, Technology Review reproduced in SPAN, March/April 2001
  5. Robert Frenay, Pulse: How Nature Is Inspiring the Technology of the 21st Century, pp.314
  6. M. Srinivasan, Is There a Third Route to Produce Nuclear Energy, The Hindu, September 27, 2007
  7. Quoted by R.R. Subramaniam, Plutonium is Deadly Indeed The Hindu, September 27, 2007
  8. John Todd and Nancy Jack Todd, Living Machines, ed. Fritjof Capra and Gunter Pauli, Steering Business Towards Sustainability, p.163-80

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