The recommendations of Bill McKibben and Ross Gelbspan, among others, attracted me to Sajed Kamal’s book The Renewable Revolution, and its subtitle was an additional enticement: How we can Fight Climate Change, Prevent Energy Wars, Revitalise the Economy and Transition to a Sustainable Future. The book is on a smaller scale than its subtitle might suggest. Kamal has long been involved in sustainable development and renewable energy as a teacher, project consultant and speaker. He is eloquent on the Sun as the energy source that connects all life, and it is solar energy that he sees as able to meet all humanity’s energy needs many times over, directly through light and heat and indirectly through wind, water movement and photosynthesis.
Photovoltaic cells are at the forefront of his advocacy. A photovoltaic (PV) spread equivalent to only 1 per cent of the Sahara Desert would produce all the electricity consumed on the planet, but he’s not advocating that degree of centralisation. It’s the multitude of scales and designs of PV systems that help make it as useful as it is. Large, multi-megawatt centralised PV power plants can be appropriately placed in different parts of the world. But there can also be small systems placed on roofs or walls or in back yards to meet or help meet the needs of single-family homes. One of the striking pictures in the book is of a camel being led through a Kenyan desert with a PV powered medical refrigeration unit on its back. Kamal grew up in Bangladesh, and shows a lively awareness of the difference even a small PV unit can make to homes in developing countries not served by any grid. He’s also aware of the difficulty poorer people have in meeting the upfront cost of a PV unit compared with regular small purchases of kerosene or diesel, even though in the longer run the PV power is much cheaper. Innovative financing options can address that.
The modularity of PV systems, their versatility, reliability and durability are the attractions the author dwells on. He aims to make the reader fully aware of all that they have to offer in the wide variety of forms and localities in which they are increasingly employed.
Other forms of renewable energy are described and discussed. Wind turbines in areas with sufficiently consistent wind are proving to be the least expensive and most appropriate electricity-generating technology. He is cautious about major hydro-electric dams, but sees many opportunities for a range of smaller scale ecologically balanced hydro-electric systems which harness the energy of flowing water. Solar collectors for hot water are efficient in many areas, sometimes surprisingly so as in a New England household he offers as an example. Solar greenhouses, well designed and operated, are providing evidence of their ability to grow food in cold conditions. He describes solar cookers which are effective in many areas, including some which can be plugged in to the electricity supply when sun is not available and use 75 per cent less energy than a conventional oven. Biogas plants can work on quite a small family scale: one compact plant developed in India can generate enough cooking gas for all the meals of a small family from a daily supply of only 2kg of vegetable scraps.
All these options have proved their worth in various parts of the world. Others are emerging. Hydrogen fuel cells are showing research breakthrough promise, and Kamal points to the enormous advantages they will offer to the developing world in the many areas not served by power lines. With some cautions he includes biofuels and geothermal sources in his survey.
Allowed to flourish, Kamal sees all these meeting humanity’s energy requirements. I was a little surprised that he didn’t include concentrated solar power for electricity generation, but he gave no reason to suppose it wouldn’t be on a comprehensive renewables list. What he does exclude is nuclear power, very firmly, on grounds of its devastating economic, environmental and political consequences. He doesn’t seem to allow for the advances in nuclear power in later plants or the promise showed if Generation IV plants can be developed. Nuclear power is bracketed with fossil fuel power in his thinking.
A feature of the book is a chapter of photographs intended to demonstrate the diversity of design and scale of each technology, the diversity of purpose of their applications, and the diversity of locations round the world where they have been implemented. It made an impressive parade.
On the question of cost Kamal is quite clear that this is one of the crucial advantages of renewable energy. Not that he has charts to show any dollars and cents comparisons. There is no point when we are not paying the cost of our fossil fuel use. In fact he considers the real, total cost of non-renewable energy may even be out of control and have thrust the world economy into bankruptcy, a state being denied by passing the debt to future generations. The renewables by contrast make for a sustainable economy. The fuel is free and abundant. Environmental control costs are borne by the manufacturer and become a factor in the selling price. There is a clear downward trend of technology costs. Renewables can serve both remote and urban locations. Technology can be readily transferred globally. Local resources can alleviate national energy expenditures, debts and deficits which obtain under current fossil fuel dependence. If real costs are faced renewables win hands down.
There is a gradual transition taking place. But Kamal acknowledges that it is nowhere near fast enough and that we are at the same time becoming more deeply entrenched in the non-renewable path. Urgency of action is critical. At this point in the book he details many initiatives under way. Many of them are local and in the US, and some of the specifics of their emergence will mean more to American readers than to those from other countries. They are all encouraging, and all worth undertaking. But it is only if they are vastly increased and become part of national endeavours that they have much hope of seriously slowing the emissions path the world is on. That wider political engagement is not a prominent part of Kamal’s book, though he acknowledges its need and comments favourably on countries such as Germany which appear to be making serious effort to move to renewable energy. He looks to the demand of growing public movements to provide the impetus to which politicians will respond.
The book is not a closely organised analysis of renewable energy prospects and the steps required to achieve them. It has more the style of a discussion of the importance of the issues at stake, including background reflection on a philosophy of human wholeness and connectedness with nature, along with examples of how the necessary transition can begin to be effected right away with the technologies already available. Puny so far perhaps, compared with the great fossil fuel industries, but the shape of the near future unless we ruin it in advance.