The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind

The answer, sang folk musician Bob Dylan in the Sixties, back when the world was a less polluted place, is blowing in the wind.

Four decades later it seems he may have been right, at least when it comes to generating electricity in a way that does not end up pumping millions of tons of harmful gases into the atmosphere.

On the Indonesian island of Bali, the venue over the next 10 days for the United Nation’s final preparatory meeting before the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg later this year, one Non Governmental Organisation has taken a fresh look at an old solution to the problem.

The European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) is one of more than 700 NGOs at the Bali conference, and in a 50-page report this week, EWEA has presented a ”global blueprint” for wind power, which, it said, could provide 12% of the world’s future electricity by the year 2020.

This is provided the political will to implement the plan exists, and governments create the required supportive regulatory framework.

A representative from a South African environmental NGO, present when the document was tabled, said the ideas the report contained offered major opportunities for advancing the use of renewable energy sources on the African sub-continent.

Using the wind to generate electricity is not a new idea and has been around for decades. But, according to the EWEA, technological advances over the past few years have changed wind-powered generators from an eccentric alternative into one of the fastest-growing industries in the world.

”Huge technological progress has caused enormous growth in the industry,” EWEA representative Christian Kjaer told delegates and journalists at a briefing on his organisation’s report.

Over the past five years, the world’s wind-power market had experienced an average growth rate of 39,5%.

”By the end of 2001, global wind power installed had reached a level of almost 25 000 MW.

”This is enough power to satisfy the needs of over 35-million people.

”Governments coming to the table to sort out the energy needs for the future through the WSSD will fail in their mandate if they ignore the industrial potential of wind power,” he said.

The most dramatic technological improvement had been an increase in the size and performance of wind turbines.

”From machines of just 25kW twenty years ago, the typical size range sold today is 75 to 1 300kW. The largest machines commercially available today have a capacity of 2 500kW, with 80-metre diameter rotors on 70 to 80-metre-high towers.”

Kjaer said the report showed there were no technical barriers or resource limits preventing the world from enjoying the dual benefit of affordable energy and a sustainable environment.

”If governments ceased their perverse subsidies to fossil fuels and nuclear power — between $250-billion and $300-billion worldwide a year — we will have clean affordable energy for the

world,” he said.

A representative for the Johannesburg-based Earthlife Africa, Muna Lakhani, told Sapa after the presentation his organisation believed the potential in South Africa for electricity generation using wind power was enormous.

”It could easily supply all the growth in our electricity needs for the foreseeable future.

”It has a maximum potential for job creation way above conventional fuel sources such as fossil fuels and nuclear power.”

Exciting development work was being done on wind turbines in South Africa, and although this was on a small scale, local manufacturing of turbines was ”certainly on the cards”.

”There’s a proposed wind farm in the Western Cape (at Darling) that will go up to 100 megawatts and will supply commercial electricity, regardless of the problems with access to the (national electricity) grid and the lack of equity in the pricing of energy sources.

Lakhani said wind power, if costed correctly, was a cheaper way of generating electricity than coal-burning or nuclear power stations.

”If you figure in just the health costs, between what is impacted on people by, for example, coal-fired power stations, and you take that health cost and apply it to (energy) competitors, you’ll find that wind power is actually cheaper for the country than coal-fired power stations.

”The same applies to a far greater extent to nuclear power, given the long life of the radioactive waste.”

He said the government should halt its subsidisation of the fossil fuel and nuclear industry, and promote renewable energy sources.

”A mix of renewable energy sources — such as tidal, wave, geothermal, solar, solar-thermal and wind power — would more than happily look after our energy needs for the future.

”We could take the lead internationally — there’s no reason we couldn’t do that — and in partnership with our African neighbours develop energy for all,” he said.

However, many NGOs here in Bali remain sceptical of the WSSD’s ability to deliver meaningful action plans to promote sustainability.

”If current language prevails,” states one NGO newsletter, ”the summit will deliver zero added value to sustainable energy.”

Many groups are lobbying for the introduction of worldwide renewable energy targets.

These involve countries committing themselves to generating a percentage of their electricity — typically, between five and 20% — from renewables by a certain target date.

”The technology is available and the resources will never run out,” says the EWEA, ”we now need stronger political signals to deliver.”

A partner in the production of the EWEA’s report is the environmental group Greenpeace. – Sapa

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Richard Davies
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