With reference to a range of national energy strategies, discuss the costs and benefits of renewable and non-renewable energy resources
Environmental resources are commonly divided into those considered to be renewable and non-renewable. Renewable resources are those which naturally regenerate with a human defined time span to provide new supplies of those resources. Non-renewable, such as minerals and land, have taken millions of years to form and therefore in human terms, are fixed in the supply available.
In reality, however the distinction is not as clear cut and resources are increasingly being classified in terms of degree of renewability within what Rees sees as a ‘use-renewability continuum’. At one extreme of the continuum are infinitely renewable resources, irrespective of how it is used by humans, e.g. solar energy and tidal power. At the other extreme are resources which, as they are used, cannot be replaced, e.g. fossil fuels. In between these two extremes are resources, the renewal of which depends on the rate at which they are used, how they are managed (including concern for the rate at which the biological ones, such as the soil and plants, regenerate (and the extent to which recycling or substitution of them can occur.
The continuation approach is helpful; it raises issues of rate of use and management of the environment, issues central to the current debate on sustainable development.
Along with the threat of exhaustion of valuable resources is an increasing concern for the environment. In extracting resources and using them, some irreparable damage is being done to the environment. Extraction of coal and minerals leaves scars on the landscape, while the processing and consumption of them leads to pollution in rivers, in coastal areas, on the land and in the atmosphere. Thus concern for proper resource management and conservation includes a careful monitoring of resource extraction and concern for the direct and indirect effects of resource use on the environment.
A third issue is that of equity of distribution of the world’s usable resources. ‘It can be believed that (some) natural resources, the heritage of poor countries are being consumed by the rich countries, denying the poor any real hope for better living conditions’. Take-over of land by translational to exploit resources when the land has traditionally been the home of indigenous peoples, should be considered.
It is important that economic needs are balanced against arguments for environmental conservation. However, the matter of equity of distribution is morally a clear cut issue if not readily attainable in practicable terms.
Following the privatisation of the UK electricity industry in 1989, there has been a rapid rise in the number of gas fired power stations. Between 1989 and 1998, over 20 new gas power stations were built. Official figures suggest that by 2020 more than half of the UK electricity industry will be generated from gas. The so called ‘dash for gas’ has been an important reason for the swift decline of the UK coal industry.
The argument in favour of gas fuelled power stations include:
* They are quicker and cheaper to build than coal power stations
* They employ fewer staff and are therefore cheaper to run; for its employees, the gas industry is less dirty and dangerous than the coal industry
* They produce electricity more cheaply than nuclear power stations
* They are cleaner for the environment; they produce almost no sulphur dioxide (which contributes to acid rain) and little carbon dioxide. They therefore help the government meet its internationally agreed targets in these areas.
In Britain, an important reason why new gas fired power stations have been built has less do with environmental protection and more to do with the structure of the electricity industry. After privatisation, the generating companied who produced the electricity were split from the distributing companies who sold the electricity to consumers. Because they did not want to e totally reliant on the generators, they decided to produce some of the electricity themselves. Gas was the cheapest option available to them.
* It is seen as a wasteful use of a natural resource. Assuming no new discoveries, at the end of 1995 the UK had only 10 years of gas reserves left at the current rate of consumption. These reserves will soon be used and, then, the UK will become dependent on imports- making the cost of electricity and domestic gas possibly more expensive.
* The rapid run down of the coal mining industry and coal power stations has had a high human and social cost. Many people have become unemployed as pits and power stations have closed. The speed of the change has made it very difficult for the individuals and communities to adjust.
* Although it is accepted that building a new gas fired plant is cheaper than building a new coal burning plant, new power stations were not needed because the older coal burning stations has many years of service left.
Most people believe that an increase in the use of renewable energy is a vital component of sustainable development policies. At the Climate Summit in Kyoto in 199, the UK government called for a reduction in CO2 emissions of 20% and a target of 10% of electricity needs to be generated from renewable sources by the year 2010.
There are five main sources of renewable energy- water power, solar power, wind power, geothermal energy and bio fuel (i.e., organic matter such as wood, agricultural produce and human or animal waste).
Once HEP schemes are in operation, the electricity is relatively cheap to generate. However, the cost of construction is often very high. Another major disadvantage is the disruption and dislocation caused to people living in the area, and the loss of farmland.
Solar power has the potential to provide a significant proportion of the world’s energy requirements. It has been estimated that an hour of sunshine provides Britain with more energy than it obtains from all the fossil fuel it burns in a year. However, the problem is converting the Sun’s rays into useful forms of energy.
Solar power stations are relatively expensive to build and install. For this reason they are generally only found in high income countries. As well as their high cost, they also have the disadvantage that they can only produce power during the daytime.
Energy conservation will involve more efficient use of energy- in homes, in business and in transport. It reduces the demand for energy and, therefore, the emission of greenhouse gases. It also cuts people’s fuel bills. In the UK, the 1995 Home Energy Conservation Act set a target of a 30% reduction in domestic energy consumption within 10 years. Local councils were given the task of using a mixture of guidance, advice and financial grants to achieve this aim.
The main domestic energy savings come from better insulation and also from draught exclusion. Double glazing, together with wall, loft, and hot water tank and pipe insulation can cut the energy used by more than 60%. If all homes in Britain were as energy efficient as those being built under current regulations, the country would easily meet its target for a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2010.
The UK government increasingly uses the tax system as a means of cutting fuel consumption. In particular, ‘carbon taxes’ on mot vehicle fuel are designed to reduce the use of cars and Lorries and to persuade people to buy more fuel efficient vehicles.