Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Energy Question

I'm listening to people debate about the proposed 15% increase of electricity by BEL. I can't help but thinking, "HEY! Guys! Look at the big picture, please!" In this light, let me teach you a little something about energy and hopefully prompt some discussion and thought about energy on a national and global level. You may disagree with me. You may say I'm advocating for BEL, but this is my perspective of the truth.

Let's start off with some basic explanations. There are two kinds of energy -- renewable energy and nonrenewable energy. The difference between these is that renewable sources of energy are replenished at the same rate they are depleted. Look at the sun, wind, or waves, for example... as one gust of wind dies, another is born to replace it. Conversely, nonrenewable sources of energy take millions of years to form. Think about oil, gas, and coal. These products are remnants of life that have formed under intense heat and pressure as well of eons of time. Another thing I should add here is that nonrenewable sources of energy produce harmful by-products -- the greenhouse gases.

It's important to realize that up until modern time, humans have relied solely upon nonrenewable forms of energy -- also known as fossil fuels. They are easy to extract and give very efficient energy amounts. But in the past 100 years, our population has increased to the point of becoming unsustainable. To complicate matters a bit more, as modern men, we're each individually using more energy than ever before in our evolutionary history. At the rate most people live, we'd need about six Earth's to sustain our current standard of living!

Now I know you're thinking, why don't we jump into this renewable sources of energy boat! Well, it's easier said than done! First of all, let me discuss wind, solar, wave, and tide energy in one. The processes of harboring these energy forms have very low efficiency rates. The initial costs of these technologies are comparatively expensive to the amount of energy derived from them; moreover, they're extraction is very conditional on weather and geographic location. These options use considerable portions of land to produce a relatively small amount of energy. Bottom line, more efficient technologies {solar panels, wind turbines, wave-energy harnessers} are needed.

Secondly, let's look at hydroelectric generation. This is a sticky topic. Personally, I love it! I think it's a good option, has high efficiency, initial investment pays back for itself, relatively low environmental impact, and so on. Environmentalist hate this option though... and I just don't understand why. The biological footprint that a dam creates comparative to its energy generation is negligible. On a very positive note, hydroelectric generation emits no greenhouse gases.

Next we have biogas, biomass, and biofuel. These sources actually harvest decaying material and waste products from activities such as agriculture {Yes, bagash, remnants of our sugar production} and use them to create energy! The energy creation process is by combustion, carbon dioxide is a by-product, but much less carbon is produced. Additionally, much less energy is created and you need obscene amounts of material to create energy. Bottom line, even if we collected every piece of crap from every baby's diaper in Belize, we would still not meet our own energy demands.

Like nonrenewable energy sources, renewable sources are not without their drawbacks. They have relatively low efficiency, high initial investment cost, some negative environmental effects, and require large tracts of land. These reasons in a nutshell are why fossil fuels are still being used, even though their consumption is slowly killing the planet. Burning fossil fuels is very cheap, and only the rising oil prices are prompting the slow exploration of renewable sources of energy now. 10 years ago oil was barely $10US a barrel, now it's $107US a barrel... and the cost is only going higher. At our current rate of consumption, there isn't oil enough to sustain life for the next 100 years. The price will not lower.

Now, let's get off the global scale and look at tiny Belize. We need a program that incorporates several processes for energy generation, not just one. The electric company is doing that. Because we're developing nation, we need the cheapest option. Buying power from Mexico during off peak hours is that. We need to start becoming self sufficient. BEL is trying, but please realize that our power needs are growing at a faster rate as our generation capacity! Cost of living goes up... naturally. Theoretically, the money we should be making should increase too, but that's a different topic for a different day.

Hope this spawns some discussion... I can't include all I want to say in one blog, but I'm looking forward to your comments.


Democrates said...
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Democrates said...

I am glad you brought up this topic. It's undeniable that the recent hike in oil prices is the principal causes of the new 15% proposal. As you mentioned, this is not BEL's fault, nor is it the government's fault. The receding American economy and the persistent Middle Eastern crisis all have negative externalities that reach the Belizean gas pumps. Welcome to what social scientists call 'Globalization'. Seeing as 60% of BEL's prices are as a result of oil prices, it is completely rational for BEL to ask for this increase. BUT...(of course there's a 'but'), you left a key form of alternative energy out of your blog: Solar. As recently as last week, I asked my physics professor, who also works at the U.S. Department of Energy, if he could tell me what the irridiance measure for Belize was. (Irridiance is the measure of sunlight per meter squared for a given area). According to most of the Department's data, Belize's irridiance is more than enough for solar's implementation. Now the big problem with solar is that it requires a huge initial investment. For a tiny country like Belize, with a volatile economy, solar energy's expense does not seem like a viable option. That is IF the government is the one who subsidizes it. Now suppose I told you that there are more than two companies, as we speak, who want to come to Belize to offer these solar panels commercially? Imagine, you get to run your house's electric needs, for a one time payment. Interested?

Again, I stress: Don't blame BEL or the government for high electric or oil prices. But, we need to push the government to hop on the alternative energy train; let's be a trend-setter for the Caribbean and Central America in efficient energy policy. Unrealistic? With 300,000 people, anything is possible.

The Voice said...

Ok Democrates... I did some research. Now, I looked for the CHEAPEST Solar Electric Panels per Watt that is currently available. By simply multiplying that by Belize's power consumption, I got a sum of ONLY 172 Trillion. {Mind you, the GDP of the US is 13.13 Trillion Dollars}. Even if it cost $1 a Watt, each Belizean would have to pay $640,000 each. Now for a country that has a GDP per capita of $8,400, it would only take each Belizean 76 years to pay!

... My point? Solar isn't affordable for complete power grid use with current technologies... Or else, don't you think we'd all be using it by now?

Democrates said...

I'm definitely speculative about those numbers. But there is a reason why many developing countries haven't jumped on the renewable energy train: it's because it creates a huge initial investment upfront, as opposed to fossil fuels which you can 'pay as you go'. The average cost per kWh from solar panels is $0.50 BZ, which is more than what we currently pay per kWh in Belize. But, eventually, that price will go drop as the technology expands. And keeping in mind, that oil prices are increasing by the day, it does make sense to start looking at alternative means. As a side note, there's a village in Belize that currently gets all its electric needs from solar energy. Moreover, several tourist resorts that are located 'back-a-bush' (where there aren't any landlines) have used solar to provide electricity as well.