Monday, 4 April 2011

Renewables are the way ahead, nobody can deny

Sunday Age
27 March 2011, Page: 4

CARBON tax and the global warming debate aside, the world is running out of energy resources. If we continue using coal at present levels, we only have 176 years left of the stuff, according to a recent report by HSBC. But there may only be 49 years left of oil that's proven resources, not potential and that's assuming demand doesn't increase. In comparison, the number of years left of coal may seem significant but it is also one of the biggest polluters and, therefore, contributors to global warming.

Events at Fukushima in Japan are not only tragic because of the radiation consequences but Japan also now needs to find alternative energy sources. Before the quake, the country relied on nuclear power for more than 20% of its energy usage. This is nowhere near France's reliance it uses nuclear power for more than 75% of total production yet it is a significant amount that needs to be supplied in a country with limited land available.

More efficient usage of energy goes some way to fixing the problem and concerted efforts by manyJapanese to cut back their use meant that not as many rolling blackouts have been required in Tokyo. But, ultimately, new sources will have to be found. Renewable solar, wind and hydropower provide the long term solution but not all countries will be able to produce them. Those that have large land masses and are close to the equator such as Africa, South America andAsia are best placed to produce solar power.

Those with large river systems that can be dammed can rely on hydroelectricity. But while hydropower is renewable, most feasible hydropower sources are already being used to capacity. Biofuels producing fuel from food crops such as grains, sugar and oilseeds are an alternative but they can result in food shortages instead and they may not necessarily be better for the environment.

Also, the production of many renewable energy sources at the moment is quite expensive compared with more conventional sources. Geothermal energy harnessing the energy of the earth is the only renewable energy that has a cost efficiency comparable with coal and gas. But those costs are coming down. In the early 1990s, solar power cost $US1.40 a kW, when coal cost about US 10 a kW. It is now closer to US200 a kW, while wind, which was also very expensive in the 1980s, is now much closer to the cost of coal as well.

Regardless of whether or not you believe in climate change, we will need to rely more on renewable sources for our energy. Investing in companies that are developing these types of energy makes good sense. Not only are you supporting something that will stop taxing the Earth, you should expect to make significant financial gains as well when the rest of the investing world wakes up to their necessity.