Bananas among world's new energy sources

From bananas to wind farms, alcohol and the sun, the search for alternative energy sources has taken on a new urgency as oil prices hit record levels.

Ideas once seen as the preserve of fringe environmental groups are getting more attention, but flicking most switches in cars, homes or industries in Asia still means tapping into fossil fuels.

Some countries, such as Japan and South Korea, have launched major drives to move away from traditional power sources, but the percentage of energy produced remains small—apart from the controversial nuclear option.

Oil, almost all of it imported, accounts for 52% of Japan’s total energy supply, the Agency of Natural Resources and Energy says—down from 80% before the first oil price shock of 1973.

But oil has been replaced mainly by nuclear energy and natural gas, with “new energy” sources such as solar and wind power accounting for just 1% of the total energy supply.

This is despite the fact that Japan is the world’s top producer of solar power—generating 48,5% of the total—followed by Germany, the United States and Australia.

Japan aims to increase its total “new energy” output to about 3% by 2010, but complains that the cost is high compared with other power sources and that output is unstable.

South Korea, which imports 97% of its fossil-fuel energy from abroad, has focused on the development of alternative sources, but the latest figures show that it accounts for just 1,03% of total energy consumption.

The main source of alternative energy is from city and industrial waste, which makes up 90% of the total alternative energy and is used in 31 cities and more than 500 factories.

The second-most-used source, at 3,7%, is biomass energy, or energy produced when organic wastes, including food waste and animal manure, decompose.

The third-most-useful alternative source, at 2,6%, is solar energy, which provides hot water to thousands of homes and is used for street lighting in some areas.

With geography and climate playing a large part in the exploitation of alternative energy sources, a new government study in New Zealand has shown that wind energy could supply about 35% of the country’s future electricity demand.

Energy Minister Trevor Mallard said wind power would combine well with another renewable source—hydro-electric power—which now provides more than 60% of electricity output.

Wind is also being tapped in the Philippines, where in mid-June south-east Asia’s largest wind farm was inaugurated on a sparsely populated stretch of coastline near the northern town of Bangui on the South China Sea coast of the main island of Luzon.

However, the privately run 24,75-megawatt project, comprising 15 towers, can only serve half the needs of Ilocos Norte, one of the country’s 75 provinces.

The government is also trying to convince Filipino motorists—without much success—to mix biodegradable diesel fuel extracted from coconut oil in the tanks of vehicles with diesel engines. Coconut oil is the Philippines’ top farm-product export.

Similar moves are afoot in Australia, where scientists have created an electricity generator fuelled by decomposing bananas and are working on plans for a full-scale, fruit-fired power station.

University of Queensland engineering lecturer Bill Clarke said he hit upon the unusual power source when Australian banana growers approached him looking for ways to make use of vast quantities of waste bananas.

Australian Banana Growers’ Council spokesperson Tony Heidrich said last week that a banana-power station capable of processing 6 000 tonnes of waste annually would produce the energy equivalent of 222 000 litres of diesel fuel.

And the junior partner in Australia’s ruling coalition, the National Party, which mainly represents rural Australians, is pressing for the use of ethanol blends in petrol to be made compulsory.

Ethanol, or ethyl-alcohol, is made from agricultural products such as corn, barley and wheat.

But real-life applications of alternative energy sources remain curiosities in an oil-obsessed world.

In Singapore, hybrid cars combining petrol and electric motors to reduce fuel consumption and emissions have been introduced by some dealers, but are not popular among motorists, partly because they are pricier than regular cars.

In Los Angeles, Jon and Sandy Spallino will be the first on their block—and possibly the world—with a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle.

American Honda Motor Company, the US unit of the Japanese automaker, said last week it was leasing its hydrogen-powered FCX to the world’s first individual customers as part of an effort to showcase the environmentally friendly auto technology.

Analysts say fuel cells represent the future of automotive technology, but will require several years to become economical and develop a network of fuelling stations.

A US company is also carrying out test flights of an unmanned airplane powered by hydrogen fuel cells that combine liquid hydrogen with oxygen extracted from the air to create electricity, which drives the propellers.

But don’t expect to see those propellers when you look out of a commercial airliner’s windows any time soon.—AFP

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