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Power for the people

By Ian Lowe - posted Tuesday, 11 July 2006

Energy is the basis of modern civilisation. We have easier lives than our grandparents did because we use much more energy: electricity, gas and transport fuels.

Our energy use is equivalent to 40 human slaves working for us in shifts, doing what slaves used to do: it produces our food, transports us, washes our clothes, entertains us, fans us when we are hot and so on.

Energy has also been used to ease other shortages. Cities without water have processed seawater - using energy. We have increased food supply for our growing population by farming more intensively - using energy. As we exhausted rich metal ores, we moved on to poorer deposits - but that takes more energy. Without usable energy, our society would literally grind to a halt.


We now face two serious problems. Experts disagree about whether we are approaching the peak of world oil production, or have actually passed it. Either way, we are near the end of the age of cheap petroleum fuels. The second problem is that the present use of “fossil fuels” - coal, oil and gas - is seriously changing the global climate.

Both problems are compounded by huge inequalities. Australians use about half as much energy as US citizens, but about five times as much as Chinese and 50 times as much as people in the poorest parts of the world. This is unfair and creating tension.

We have known about the problems of peak oil and climate change for decades. I gave public lectures in Brisbane and regional centres in 1977, warning that oil production would peak at about 2010. Science was telling us in 1987 that climate change was a real threat to civilised society, demanding a new approach to energy supply and use. But we still have no overall energy policy, for Queensland or nationally, to plan the transitions from cheap oil and large-scale coal use.

Petroleum fuels are becoming more expensive as increasing demand faces slowing production. Prices are now about $1.20 per litre - less than we pay for milk, orange juice, beer or cask wine. We could be paying $2 by the end of the year and $5 by 2010. That will have a dramatic impact, especially on those who now drive large fuel-hungry vehicles.

The response should include both supply options, such as other transport fuels, as well as the demand side of the equation: how can we reduce our need for oil products? Some alternative transport fuels have been known and used for decades: alcohol from sugar cane and synthetic liquid fuel from gas. There are new forms of transport energy on the horizon; hydrogen produced from water by renewable energy is the most likely to be sustainable. These alternatives will cost much more to move people and goods around. So we need to develop alternatives like better public transport, bikeways and footpaths, but we urgently need urban planning to make services more accessible.

We also need to put much less carbon dioxide into the air. There are two ways to do this. First, we must use cleaner fuels. It is much better to use gas than electricity, especially in Queensland where most of our power comes from burning coal. We can’t afford to keep using old technologies that are changing the global climate - like coal-fired electricity. Using electricity to heat water or cook, rather than burning gas, puts about four times as much carbon dioxide into the air.


Renewable energies, such as solar or wind power, are cleaner still. These natural energy flows are huge, far greater than human energy needs. As a specific example, the entire world’s energy use for a whole year is only about double the solar energy hitting Australia in one summer day. We should get much more of our energy from sun, wind and other renewable sources. It will cost a bit more than burning coal, but it won’t impose the large and growing costs of climate change.

The second part of the solution is turning energy more efficiently into the services we want. We don’t actually want energy; we want hot showers and cold drinks, the ability to cook our food, wash our clothes and move around. Most of the technology we use is very wasteful. Several European countries now have a target of cutting energy use to a quarter of the present level by efficiency improvements.

Around the world 1.2 billion people still need clean water, 800 million are hungry and hundreds of millions lack decent shelter. To meet their basic needs within the limits of global systems, we must use cleaner energy and use it more efficiently. What you and I do every day makes a difference. We are all creating the future. It will only be sustainable if it is equitable, resourced and respects the limits of the Earth.

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About the Author

Professor Ian Lowe is emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University. Professor Lowe is the Energy Champion ambassador for Earth Dialogues Brisbane 2006 July 21-24 a part of the Brisbane Festival.

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