Four recommendations for the EU countries
Energy demand and consumption will not stop growing in the next four decades. And none of the current systems of energy production is problem-free; they all have their pros and cons. And so?
(Barcelona) CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY’S CONCERN for ecological degradation is intrinsically linked to energy production and consumption. Ever since the prehistoric era, humans have tried to control diverse energy sources in the pursuit of greater well-being. In this way, men went about using the four classic “elements” (fire, water, earth and air) to improve his quality of life. The Agricultural Revolution, deforestation for the purposes of construction of boats, the mining industry, metallurgy, the use of draft animals, etc. began to transform the environment. But the changes really only became radical after the Industrial Revolution of the last two decades. And now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it would be downright stupid to deny the seriousness of environmental degradation.
It is a grave problem. But due to profusion of emotional positions and demagogic arguments, by the “developers” as much as certain “ecologists” we sometimes lack an informed and quantified ecological debate. Merely singing the praises of development or ideologically demonizing certain energy sources does not help focus the debate and make it more rational. There are two general questions: what systems of energy production are the most convenient, and how can we redirect energy consumption towards more “sustainable” terms in the future? These are questions for which the European Union still does not have very clear answers.
THERE IS NO PROBLEM-FREE SYSTEM
At the very least, energy demand and consumption will not stop growing in the next four decades. And none of the current systems of energy production is problem-free; they all have their pros and cons. While evaluating them, we shouldn’t only take into account the performance and effects of said systems, but also the economic, energy and environmental costs of the distinct technologies, the extraction of “fuel” and the construction of power plants.
Just a little bit of fossil fuel (coal, oil, gas) can provide a lot of energy, and they are still abundant; however, the waste that they leave cannot be reused and they cause serious contamination (pollution and the greenhouse effect). There are also risks involved in their transportation (oil tankers), and extracting them requires a great deal of energy. Their concentration in certain countries poses an added strategic and geopolitical problem, and it looks like the era of cheap oil has come to an end.
Hydroelectric energy is clean, but it is limited, since its depends on orography, and a lot of energy is required to construct dams. The use of tidal power is uncertain because of the technical problems that it poses. Solar thermal energy is also clean, but its price and need for large surfaces is a great obstacle. Wind farms are also a cheaper energy alternative, but not quite as cheap as it seems, given that they present management problems (wind is intermittent and windmills can only take advantage of wind speeds within a certain range) and also need to be connected to an electronic network, which renders the performance of power plants, which push the price of electricity up, suboptimal. Photovoltaic energy clearly offers good prospects for the future, but its current performance greatly limits its possibilities in large scale energy production. Today, biofuels seem to raise more economic and contamination problems than they solve. Nuclear power is still an option, despite the emotional arguments against it that are often heard,which are generally based on a lack of information. It yields a great deal of energy, its current security is almost optimal and the earth’s supply of uranium is far from being exhausted. Rejecting nuclear energy on principle would be foolish. Developed countries like France, Belgium, Sweden, Japan, Finland, etc. continue to develop it. But no one can deny that some problems still subsist, such as those associated with radioactive waste, whose management via vitrification, however, has improved a lot in the last three decades, in contrast with the awful management of the waste produced by other systems. We also have to bear in mind that the public has a negative perception of this energy, in spite of the fact that there are more than 400 nuclear power plants in operation in the world today.
THE EU WITH EYES TO THE FUTURE
So what would be the most recommendable thing for the EU countries to do, with their eyes to the future?
I believe that there are four fundamental things: 1) support research, especially research focused on those sources that have the greatest potential, such as photovoltaic energy (increasing the longitudinal range of useful waves, and improving plate performance) and nuclear power; 2) support diverse forms of energy (minimizing risks) and decrease dependency (geostrategy); 3) rationalize public subsidies and contract security for businesses that decide to invest in distinct energy types (avoiding subsidizing what ends up not being sustainable, even if it is presented as “alternative”); 4) give incentive to the three “Rs” of energy consumption (in order of decreasing importance: reduce, reuse and recycle). Energy and the environment are related to quality of life. The challenge is not to pit them against each other, but rather to optimize their interaction.