Thursday, May 04, 2006

Gorbachev goes Green about Chernobyl.

As noted in previous postings, the 20th anniversary of the explosion at the Unit 4 reactor in the Chernobyl nuclear power station has now recently passed. In commemoration of this fact, and more poignantly its aftermath, the former U.S.S.R. president, Mikhail Gorbachev, who is also the Founder and Chairman of "Green Cross International" has called the leaders of the G8 nations to commit to the future provision of energy by the use of renewable sources and its more efficient use. This was sent along with a personal letter from Gorbachev in an "Energy Security" brief to leaders of G8 parliament countries and their heads of state (so presumably Her Majesty The Queen received one? Or Prince Charles, perhaps, who is highly committed to "environment" issues).
Fronted by Gorbechev, Green Cross International and "Global Security", its American Sister body, have urged the G8 to support sustainable energy, in part to the sum of $50 billion to create a "Global Solar Fund". I would guess that Jeremy Leggett CEO of Solarcentury, the UK's leading solar photovoltaics company would applaud this instigation, since Leggett is furthermore a director of the world's first private equity renewable energy fund, Bank Sarasin's New Energies Invest AG and serves on the UK Government's Renewables Advisory Board. Hopefully the two funds if placed upon the market together will not come into confrontation.
There is the separate issue of just what proportion of the world's current electricity usage might be provided even by $50 billion worth of "solar panels", however. I have heard it said that the entire U.S. electricity could be provided by covering one tenth of the area of Arizona with solar panels. I live in the village of Caversham in the U.K., not there, but from my travels in America I recall that Arizona is a pretty big place, so covering 1/10 of it (or that scale elsewhere in America, which by European standards is in total extremely large) would be a considerable undertaking. Would it even be possible to fabricate sufficient of them on a world scale - I doubt it very much, unless the other edge of Gorby's sword is used to smite the vast and rising energy use both in the developed and developing world, into something more realistically manageable.
Gorbachev believes that the Solar Fund would help the developing world in their rise as industrial powers and could be installed so to prevent "black-outs" (or "brown-outs", as in the infamous novel "entitled "Brown-out on Sunset Boulevard", brown-outs being somewhat less protracted and less extensive abrupt electricity shortages) in major cities with huge electricity and other energy requirements.
It is undoubtedly true that humanity is facing massive issues of energy security and supply - the societal consequences of failing to manage this task being practically unthinkable. An exponential expansion of renewables in general and solar, according to Gorbachev, is required to provide "clean" (i.e. non-polluting) energy in perpetuity, but I doubt the Heyday can be sustained. Once the crop is cut, unlike "hay", it cannot be grown again. Once the oil and gas are gone then that is probably that, and the scale of generating hydrogen by water electrolysis using renewably (solar?) generated electricity that would be necessary, along with a storage and supply infrastructure of a scale that no government or scientific advisor has dared even mention, as an alternative to that entirety is more than likely out of the question.
Once we have exhausted our existing resources, how will we have enough energy to fuel the fabrication of solar panels or indeed any other kind of sustainable resource.
Gorbachev argues on economic grounds that nuclear power is not the answer either, pointing out that the industry is kept running to a large extent propped up by government subsidies, in the U.S. to the extent of $260 billion in the years 1947 through to 1999. The same commitment to renewables was a meager 2.1% of that during the same period. The provision of nuclear is only a long-term option in any case if we convert the precious world resource of uranium to plutonium in fast breeder reactors. India is less immediately reliant on uranium, with its huge natural resource of thorium, an element that can also be "bred" into a fissile form (uranium 233) by injecting a neutron into the nucleus of thorium 232 (similar to creating plutonium 239 from uranium 238). However, even resources of thorium are ultimately exhaustible, hence the issue persists.
I'm all for renewables in principle, but remain unconvinced that they can substitute for the colossal and rising overall energy demand that humankind is placing on the limits of the globe. If we make a truthful commitment to cutting that first, we may be in with a chance of "sustainable humanity".


Anonymous said...

I am just wonder, how new Chairman of Green Cross International Jan Kulczyk
will replace Gorbachev on this position.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

That is a good question. maybe the overall "sympathy" worldwide toward nuclear will be an influence; i.e. that it produced less CO2 and is sometimes counted among "renewables".

It is not of course since nuclear fuel is finite as all other fossil deposits/fuels are.

I shall watch that particular space with interest.



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