KANSAS — The Bush administration is attempting to direct global energy policy in a new direction five years after the landmark Kyoto agreement to roll back emissions of greenhouse gases.
Energy ministers from United States, Japan, Canada, Russia, France, Italy, United Kingdom and Germany meeting in Detroit late last month displayed strong unanimity on the importance of addressing energy deficits in the Third World and moving toward a greater reliance on renewable energy.
What was unclear, however, were specific policies and a timetable for deploying them. The energy ministers met to address major issues in advance of the meeting of G8 leaders this month in Kananaskis, Alberta, Canada.
The meeting of the energy ministers, the first such gathering since a summit in Moscow in 1998, was cochaired by the United States and Canada. It was evident in Detroit that in a post-Sept. 11 world, energy ministers feel a new urgency to enact energy policies that help develop the Third World and alleviate global environmental concerns.
Brian Wilson, England’s energy minister, said more people have been lifted out of poverty in the last 50 years than the last 500.
“Our goal is to halve the number of people in poverty by 2015,” he said in an open, daylong forum held before the G8 energy ministers met behind closed doors. The U.S. Energy Association sponsored the forum.
He continued, “the energy business needs to raise the focus of energy’s role” in alleviating the suffering of the poor. For instance, 2 billion people do not have access to safe cooking fuels, he said. As a result, forests get denuded.
The power grid cannot be extended to everyone on earth. However, Wilson said, technology can do much — if there is a will and an economic way to deploy it.
“We need to adopt the scale of vision which the G8 Renewable Energy Task Force recommended,” Wilson declared. “They concluded that a billion people could be supplied with renewable energy over the next decade. We need not get bogged down in discussing a particular number, if that is an obstacle to progress, but simply recognize the scale of the potential.”
Robert Stempel, the former chairman and CEO of General Motors, told forum attendees that 1,000 off-grid lighting systems had been deployed in Uganda. Stempel is now chairman of Energy Conversion Devices Inc., a Michigan company developing solar products, batteries and hydrogen storage systems. The company this month opens a facility that each year will produce enough thin-film solar voltaic material to generate 25 megawatts of power — or about one-quarter of the peak energy demand of Albany, N.Y.
Stempel estimated that spending $250 billion over a decade on such technology would bring power to 1 billion people. That is an astonishing sum, equal to about half of the after-tax profits of all U.S. companies last year. It is also the sum Americans spend in 2 1/2 years to remodel their homes. Can the Western world muster resources of this magnitude over a decade to improve the lives of 1 billion truly powerless humans?
Stempel, a former GM chairman and CEO, said he now believes it is important to lessen our dependence on oil, a finite fuel resource. Renewable energy is also being developed in Japan, Sharp Corp. executive Buheita Fujiwara said in Detroit. He reported that the cost of deploying solar panels in the country has fallen to approximately $6,000, about one-sixth the cost of a few years ago. The growing popularity of solar panels in Japan is in part the result of government subsidies for the technology, Fujiwara said.
Renewable energy is particularly valuable to Japan. Yosaku Fuji, president of Kansai Electric Power Co., pointed out that the country must import 95 percent of its energy resources, including uranium for nuclear plants.
To spur energy development, Fuji said that Japan is slowly exploring the merits of deregulation. The country deregulated wholesale markets in 1995 and two years ago liberalized rules governing large retail customers who account for 30 percent of electricity sales.
Fuji now sits on a committee advising the government on the advisability of further deregulation. Fuji, however, wants to make sure the goals of any major energy policy shift in Japan are clear.
“For whom do we deregulate?” he asked. “The most important point is that trading electricity is sometimes not good for the consumer.”
Fuji was referring to the California energy crisis of a year ago, when faulty deregulation and alleged irregularities in energy trading resulted in blackouts and rising power costs in much of the western United States.
In the California disaster, Fuji said, “No one was responsible for a stable supply of electricity.”
Returning to global issues, Yasuo Hayashi, executive managing director of Mitsui & Co., said that electricity consumption in the world is growing about 2.7 percent a year — but that the rate is increasing 4.2 percent annually in developing countries.
“It is an indisputable strong correlation between energy and economic development,” Hayashi said.
Still, there was disagreement on how the G8 countries could spur energy development in the Third World.
Susan McDade with the United Nations Development Program in New York pointed out that it is not good enough to give out $100 solar-powered lighting systems to a destitute family living on $1 a day. The harder, more enduring work is to figure out how to create jobs and an economic infrastructure around renewable energy in the Third World, she said.
Antonio V. del Rosario of the Philippines, chairman of the World Energy Council, asked attendees at the G8 forum to visualize a starving child with his hand extended in need.
“In 5, 10, 18 years, will he hold an AK-47, a plow or a pen?” he asked. “You or I can make a difference.”
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