After the price of oil shot up to an all-time high of $ 70 a barrel towards the end of August 2005, realisation has come to dawn on consumers everywhere that the years of permanent cheap oil are over and the time has come to look for alternate sources of power. Is there anything like that? What is oil primarily used for? For driving cars, trucks and engines, in the first place. Secondly for generating electricity for lighting and providing infrastructure for industry. Thirdly, for various subsidiary purposes of a non-industrial nature.
It is now accepted wisdom that in the coming decades there will be an ?inexorable fall? in worldwide oil extraction and if efforts are not made now, a time will come when all movement will come to an automatic stop. Buses will not run, highways will stay unused and industrial wheels will come to a stop and darkness will envelop the land.
What happened in Germany in 2004-2005, for instance, illustrated what the problem is. In that one year almost half of the 114 million tons of petroleum products that were processed in German refineries flowed into vehicle fuel tanks. The next largest item?heating oil?provided heat to roughly one third of all German homes. Admittedly Germany is situated in a cold zone and what is true of the Federal Republic is not necessarily true of India, for instance. But the fact remains that Germany, like many advanced countries situated in the temperate zone, necessarily has to consume a lot of oil during winter. In the past, coal was freely used but the use of coal since ancient times was never eco-friendly and with oil getting increasingly a rare commodity besides being costly, sources other than oil will have to be identified for fuel purposes.
An expert committee set up by the German Federal Government recently identified roughly 270 field production options and, according to the wishes of the European Union, just under six per cent of the fuel sold across Europe is to be obtained from farm produce by the 2010. It has been found that one can produce bioethanol, for instance, from sugar beet or potatoes, though the cost of production will be uneconomic. In parts of urban Germany, frying fat from snack bars is being unorthodoxly used to run Mercedes C 220s, but at the same time bio-fuel is getting patronised and workshops that adapt vehicles to run on vegetable oil are doing a magnificent trade, though the cost of engine modifications to meet this requirement is more than 200 Euros.
Unlike petroleum and natural gas, biomass reduces the output of greenhouse gases, is permanently available and independent of the wind and the weather. Actually biomass is booming; 800 new plants were installed in Germany in 2005 alone. Last year, almost ten bullion kilowatt hours of electricity was generated, using biomass?four billion kilowatt hours more than in 2004.
Biomass share of overall energy production will continue to rise in Germany. In the long term, according to the country'sFederal Environment Ministry estimates, 10 per cent of the total electricity supply and 20 per cent of supplied heating in German homes will be generated from biomass.
In Canada, a biotechnological firm ?Iogen? is experimenting with straw! Specially cultivated enzymes transform the straw into petrol substitute. In some parts of Germany, some 18,000 MW of wind power is generated, considered a world record. Roughly one third of the world'swind turbines and half of the world'swind power plants in the European Union are to be found in Germany.
In 2005, with a total out put of 26.5 billion kilowatt hours, wind energy supplied more electricity than any other renewable energy source. That is almost twice as much electricity as Berlin consumes in a year! In 2005, the German wind industry accounted for roughly half of the worldwide market volume of more than 12 billion Euros. The number of employees engaged in this occupation doubled to 60,000 between 2000 and 2005. But even better than wind energy, the German solar energy is booming. Markets are growing by 20 per cent a year.
World AG has even become the market leader in the US as a result of its acquisition of Shell'ssolar cell production facilities. Significantly India is also catching up, though slowly. Due to its geographic location in the tropics, India has more than 300 uninterrupted sunny days. This is a blessing in disguise, considering that solar energy can be utilised to convert sunlight into electricity. Many villages in Belthangady taluka in Kanara which do not have grid power are now provided with Solar Home Lighting Systems (SHLS) with the help of Shri Kshethra Dharmasthala Rural Development Project (SKDRDP). The total number of installations has, surprisingly enough, crossed, the 3,000 mark and in many cases, banks have provided the necessary financial assistance to clients.
A survey made of 1,304 households showed that even illiterate agricultural labourers have installed SHLS, that even persons having low income, and staying in thatched house, have adopted the new SPV technology, that only 40 per cent of the respondents have availed of bank loans, that majority (70 per cent) of the users on average use solar light for more than four hours a day and that post-installation cost or the SHLS is very low or almost nil.
Among other things the survey showed that the majority of homes (52 per cent) using solar electricity have four to six members living in, that majority (65 percent) of the users have four to six rooms in their houses, that majority (60 per cent) of the users have stated that the after sales services provided by the dealers have been good to very good and that majority (51 per cent) of users have stated that the average post-installation cost incurred by them is less than Rs 500 per annum.
And most significant of all, more than 75 per cent of the users said that the utility of the SHLS is good to very good. What the survey shows is that solar technology is fool proof and fully to the satisfaction of the users. The raw material required is sunlight which, in India certainly, is available round the year and is free of cost. There is no transmission and distribution loss as in grid power. And it is eco-friendly as there is no emission of fumes or noise. There is no reason why solar energy should not be used especially in areas like Gujarat and Rajasthan which don'thave a continuous rainy season and the skies are unclouded.
Significantly, technology is changing very fast and where once the technology used silicon solar cells, currently the system is using thin film modules based on a different technology that requires far less raw material which could make solar energy even cheaper. It is not clear to what extent the Government of India has involved in this development but it is time the administration gives it its earnest consideration. It won'tbe long before the world gives a fond farewell to oil.