Menu

Alternate fuels

What about the 860 million people in sub-Saharan Africa? I have already noted that there are 860 million people that do not have access to electricity, many of whom live in Africa in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Ethiopia, Niger and South Sudan but also in counties such as Haiti, Cambodia, Nepal and Myanmar. None of these counties have any coal to mine, so conventional power stations such as the ones we are familiar with in the Hunter are not viable. Coal would have to be imported and with small economies there just isn’t the money available to buy the coal. This is where the alternate electricity generation options come into play:

Biofuels: this is how a lot of the world generates its electricity now – burning things like sugar cane waste is quite a good option, chopping down forests to run your power stations not quite so sensible. Again there is the problem with carbon dioxide being released, and lower thermal values of bio-mass mean you need a lot of fuel. This is a good option where there are few alternatives.

Oil and gas: good option if you have plenty of oil and gas available cheaply, pretty expensive if you have to import it from overseas. Oil and gas are both hydrocarbons and face carbon pollution issues too. Many of these emerging Third World countries don’t have oil or gas reserves to exploit.

Geothermal: this is cheap, renewable; non-polluting but only effective if you have the right geology. New Zealand, Iceland, Japan and other ‘volcanic’ countries have this option, many other places including Australia and much of Africa doesn’t have the appropriate geology.

Hydro: reliable; non-polluting, renewable but does require rain. Building dams can be an issue and while recent ‘run-of-river’ schemes in the Upper Amazon basin are proving effective at generating a lot of electricity for Brazil and Bolivia: dams are expensive and often contentious.

Nuclear: this is expensive technology. The older style nuclear power stations built in the mid-20th Century are wearing out, as are the coal powered power stations built around the same time – Liddell for example. In China new technology nuclear power stations are coming on line – at a cost of around $25 billion each. They generate electricity 24/7 much like a coal fired power station, but with no carbon pollution. They are a good option for large scale generation but don’t work as well for smaller scales, and they need a lot of water for cooling. Disposal of nuclear waste is also an issue.

Wind: the wind blows pretty much everywhere. Low cost and relatively low tech wind generators are making major inroads into supplying cheap, pollution free, environmentally friendly renewable power around the world. However, it does have the limitation of only generating electricity when the wind is blowing, and electricity is hard to store.

PV solar: I have solar panels on my roof: they paid for themselves in 6 years. The same limitations as wind power – intermittent generation and storage – but otherwise the same advantages: low capital cost, renewable, carbon free. This option is being adopted world-wide in places where the sun shines fairly reliably. Not the best option for a rain-forest though.

There are other generation technologies out there: wave power, focused solar, tidal power – all at various stages of development. The one technology we need to master is how to store electricity. Coal and nuclear power station both work much the same way using different fuels and are both best if run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and not stopped and started to suit demand. This means they are still generating electricity in the dead of the night that nobody wants to use. Demand is highest in the evenings: solar works best during the day. Wind only works when the wind is blowing. The ability to store and release electricity when we need it is the key.