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Friday, 8 September, 2000, 15:00 GMT 16:00 UK
Alternatives to oil
Renewable energy sources could become more important
Renewable energy could become more important
By BBC News Online's Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

The industrialised world stands aghast at the prospect of rising oil prices.

Paying more for oil means increases in the price of almost everything that drives the rich economies.

The possibility that oil prices could continue to rise appals the Northern countries, who see no other way to fuel their growth.

But they have little room for manoeuvre, because they cannot determine the prices. In the grip of a crisis, it is hard to argue that there may be a silver lining.

But the benefit of the present oil price hikes could be to focus attention on the possibility of a world far less dependent on oil.

Environmental groups have for years been arguing that we shall all have to live radically different lives when the oil reserves are finally exhausted.

The truth is that they probably never will be. Oil will simply become too expensive to compete with other fuels.

Amory Lovins, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, is fond of reminding audiences: "The stone age didn't end because the stone ran out, and the oil age will be just the same."

The Age of Coal

Before oil's supremacy, coal was king.

It was the bedrock of the industrial revolution in Europe and North America, and it still has a role to play.

There are enormous reserves of coal available, but it does give off large quantities of the gases which are causing climate change, especially carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2).

Technology can help, up to a point, with improvements like fluidised bed technology, which burns coal much more efficiently and results in much less pollution.

But it seems highly unlikely that coal will ever recover its once-dominant position.

Nuclear puzzle

Some people still pin their hopes on nuclear power, which makes far less of a contribution to global warming (though it is not entirely neutral).

But in half a century the world's nuclear industry has had at least three serious accidents. Windscale (UK, 1957), Three Mile Island (US, 1979) and Chernobyl (USSR, 1986) are names etched into the global memory, synonyms for horrific brushes with catastrophe.

Many people therefore reject new nuclear plants in the belief that more accidents are inevitable.

And apart from that, the industry still shows no sign of being able to get rid of its waste in safety.

Renewable fuels

A third category of fuel comes under the heading of renewables.

Some are tried and tested, like hydro-electric power, and many countries, for instance Norway, are already exploiting them to the full.

Wind and wave power have promise, as does biomass - crops like willow which grow quickly and are increasingly being used for fuel. Transport fuel based on renewable oilseed crops such as soybeans and rapeseed also has potential.

Solar power is coming on by leaps and bounds. There are already photo-voltaic cells which will provide power on a cloudy British winter's day, or even by moonlight.

They are expensive, but a lot cheaper than similar cells were a few years ago.

For vehicles, many motor manufacturers believe the future lies in fuel cells, which will power cars as effectively as now, but without relying on oil.

They foresee a change from an oil-based economy to one based on hydrogen.

Conservation

And there is what its supporters are fond of calling "the fifth fuel" - energy conservation.

Most of us still waste fuel on a prodigious scale, and the savings we could make by greater efficiency, and by just switching off, are immense.

The environment minister of an eastern European country told me in the early 1990s: "In the Soviet days, we did have thermostats in our homes and factories. When we got too hot, we just opened the windows."

Rising oil prices are the perfect excuse for second thoughts.


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