in Serious stuff, my friend

Time for coal change

At the height of the Cold War — when Russia was one nation, Germany was two, and more than three superpowers were developing nuclear weapons — Gerd Leipold did something spectacular.

Together with a fellow Greenpeace volunteer, Leipold flew a hot air balloon over the Berlin Wall, starting from West Germany to what was then the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic.

Besides the possibility of immediate arrest, the environmental activists were well aware that they could be held in prolonged detention upon touching East German soil. That is, if the military had enough prudence to keep their fingers off the trigger the minute they trespassed communist-controlled skies.

Despite these risks, the two activists went ahead and took off, bringing a banner indicating the group’s strident opposition to nuclear testing, an activity, at that time, routinely undertaken by every nation which had access to such technology.

As it turned out, not only was the protest given international media coverage, Leipold and his companion took part in one of the most famous protests in Greenpeace history.

But those days are just about over for Leipold who, since June 2001, has been the international executive director of one of the world’s most popular environmental groups.

Now in his mid-fifties, Leipold has shown no signs of giving up.

He remains just as committed to preserving the environment now as he was back in the early eighties when fax machines were rare, twenty- four hour cable news television was a fantasy, and electronic mail was the stuff of science fiction.

But things change.

Four years after Leipold flew over the Berlin Wall, the structure separating the two Germanies crumbled, presaging the end of the Cold War.

While the fall of communism may have helped Greenpeace’s campaign to reduce the world’s appetite for nuclear weapons, the victory of the so-called “free” world also spawned a different set of environmental problems, especially in
Asia.

Asia’s rising coal consumption

Known for its spectacular economic growth (save for a few countries), the region has been increasingly dependent on coal to power its industries and consequently, support its expansion.

Besides driving worldwide coal consumption by nearly one-third during the last four years, Asia’s use of the commodity jumped by 70 percent during the same period, according to Greenpeace.

Which is perhaps why Leipold flew to the Philippines last June to speak during the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Clean Energy Week.

In his speech delivered in Manila, Leipold placed emphasis on plans to reduce and eventually eliminate fossil fuel use and “generate a massive uptake of renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

“We have only a decade — two at most — to effect real change and avoid the worst impacts of climate change,” he said.

Leipold also felt duty-bound to say that among the many energy sources, coal is the most reviled among environmentalists.

It is not difficult to see why.

Coal’s only advantage

Between oil, gas, and coal, the third is the cheapest, thanks to abundant reserves which is estimated to last anywhere from two to nine centuries.

However, it’s also the most dangerous.

When burned to produce power, coal emits one-third more carbon than oil, thereby releasing more greenhouse gases.

Upon entering the atmosphere, these greenhouse gases trap heat, which in turn, melt ice-caps and glaciers around the world. Since water from the melting ice seeps into the ocean, significant increases in sea levels have been recorded.

This, in turn, threatens low-lying areas, small island states, and major port cities, Manila included.

Unabated global warming is also expected to cause drastic changes in day to day weather conditions.

Various reports have already indicated that from 1991 to 2004 seven extreme weather events in the Philippines have already taken place, owing to climate change.

These include the 1991 Ormoc catastrophe, the 1999 Cherry Hills tragedy, the 2000 Payatas garbage slide, and most recently the 2004 Aurora floods.

Coal-fired power plants were also identified as a source of trace elements of toxic chemicals including neurotoxin mercury.

According to the US National Wildlife Federation less than a teaspoon of the chemical could contaminate a ten-hectare lake and render its fish unsafe for human consumption.

Naturally, Greenpeace remains opposed to the use of coal — and other fossil fuels — for power production.

As expected, the group has requested funding agencies, governments, and other private corporations to stop supporting entities intending to operate coal, oil, and gas projects.

The group has also challenged multilaterals such as the ADB to help develop projects which generate power from the wind, sun, water, and other renewable sources.

The request may have been heeded. Or so it appears.

ADB launches clean energy fund

Last May, a month before Leipold visited Manila, the ADB announced its clean energy initiative during its annual general meeting in Hyderabad, India.

Boasting of $1 billion-worth of renewable energy (RE) and energy efficient projects by 2008, the Manila-based lender will also help the region to improve the way it uses energy.

Bindu Lohani, the special advisor to the ADB president on clean energy and the environment, told BusinessMirror that by next year, the lender is expected to have $300 million worth of RE projects in the pipeline.

Although clarifying that the ADB has undertaken such programs in the past for
China and India, Lohani admitted that the bank needs to increase its involvement in renewable energy projects.

“Our current portfolio is not very strong on renewable energy but we have also realized that it is very important to build this portfolio for countries who are keen to do this,” he said, adding that an RE project is currently being prepared for Pakistan.

Greenpeace, however, remains skeptical of the ADB — and with good reason.

In Greenpeace’s view, the ADB’s initiative to establish the clean energy fund is something of a contradiction.

Despite promises to fund RE projects, the bank will still provide loans to what it considers as “clean coal“ projects.

“Countries like China and India need a mixture of coal to meet their energy needs,” Lohani said, adding that an outright refusal to use coal may not be realistic.

Citing methods identified by the UK’s Clean Coal center (a representative of which also spoke at the ADB’s Clean Energy Week), Lohani said that the bank may consider “the best possible technology options on how coal can be best utilized.“

“The option is how we can bring in to make cleaner coal,” he said, referring to new technology which can remove coal pollutants by trapping it and storing it in places such as abandoned mines and oil fields. “When we do this, we got to go for the best technology.“

Clean coal myth

Unfortunately, “clean coal” technology remains one of those modern advancements over which many experts are divided.

While other industry experts swear by the technology’s potential, Greenpeace considers it a myth.

In The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World (Mariner Books, 2004), author Paul Roberts explains that carbon capture — a process no different from the one Lohani identified — works, at least in theory.

Involving several stages, the process will first convert coal into gas. The refined substance will be subjected to intense heat and pressure, allowing the removal of pollutants, which will then be captured and pumped into storage.

Unfortunately, since it is still in its early stages of development, carbon capture technology has yet to be tried out on a mass scale, Roberts said in his book, which is nearly 400 pages long, makes no mention of the UK Clean Coal Center, and only cites Greenpeace twice.

“The process…must burn 20 percent more coal to simply generate the energy needed to run the carbon capture equipment, which itself is expected to be quite expensive,” he said, adding that RE advocates are disturbed about the technical uncertainties surrounding the process of storing and transporting carbon dioxide.

Besides requiring additional power to make coal less dirty, widespread use of clean coal technology will increase overall energy demand by 17 percent, according to an alternative energy expert Roberts interviewed for his book.

“We end up burning our fossil fuels at a higher rate in order to protect ourselves from the carbon they produce,” said John Turner of the Golden, Colorado-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory, who considers carbon capture a “temporary fix.” “Every dollar we’re talking about spending on carbon sequestration should be spent on renewables.“

Not surprisingly, Turner’s assertion conforms with what Greenpeace has been saying all along, a point emphasized once more by Greenpeace volunteers attending a meeting of energy ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held in Laos this August.

People speak out against coal plants

Myth or not, financially-sustainable or otherwise, coal power plants should go the way of dinosaurs, RE advocates say, citing reasons identified earlier.

Fortunately, local communities, with the help of concerned officials and Greenpeace volunteers, have led the way in speaking out against dirty and dangerous coal facilities.

Last month, in Isabela province, mounting opposition from residents has led a state-owned coal plant to withdraw from the area.

Two weeks after a protest action, the Philippine National Oil Co. announced that it was pulling out the project owing to the lack of community support.

The victory is not isolated.

In 2002, the people of Pulupandan in Negros Occidental also defeated proposals to put up a coal plant in their area.

Together with a confluence of other events, this incident was also instrumental in convincing the Senate and Congress to investigate these facilities.

Besides uncovering environmental violations, the investigations also revealed that some power plants secured financial arrangements disadvantageous to the government, which in turn, are considered as one of the primary reasons for the Philippines’ fiscal deficit.

But that is another story altogether.

Of the seven coal plants all across the Philippines, two — Sual in Pangasinan and Masinloc in Zambales — are funded, directly or indirectly, by the ADB.

Funding coal is a hard habit to break

Providing funds to coal plant operators may prove to be such a hard habit to break for the Asian multilateral lender.

Since the ADB has provided funds, grants, and technical assistance worth $1.5 billion from 2000 to 2006 to fossil fuel projects, Greenpeace remains guardedly optimistic about the bank’s clean energy fund.

“The Bank will fund more renewable energy projects, there is no doubt about that,” Leipold told BusinessMirror. “How much more, that is the question.“

For its part, Greenpeace has always maintained that it is not the role of the Bank to fund fossil fuel development.

Besides citing the easy availability of private sector funds for carbon-intensive projects, the group said that the ADB would be better off to use its funds for “massive renewable energy and demand-side energy efficiency development, which at the same time will foster and promote the Bank’s objectives of sustainable development and poverty alleviation.“

Big move to clean energy

Encouraging Asia to move away from fossil fuel power projects is not an easy task.

However, given the rapid development of renewable energy technologies, previously identified challenges to implement clean projects are either resolved or rendered obsolete.

Take solar energy.

Despite investments of more than three billion dollars to upgrade the photovoltaic (PV) cell — solar panels from which electricity could be produced — only one-tenth of solar energy could be converted to usable power, according to Roberts book.

But that was in the early 1990s.

Before the decade ended, Japan, which has the most expensive power rates in the region, and Germany, embarked on an ambitious program to subsidize and install millions of PV systems.

Thanks to legislation in the two the two industrialized countries, the global solar industry was boosted.

Between 1995 to 2002, the number of installed PV systems in Japan jumped from 80 megawatts of total power to five hundred megawatts.

“Today, solar is growing at 30 percent a year — as fast as cellphones during their breakthrough period — and the energy industry has taken note” Roberts said in his book, referring to British Petroleum and Shell, which have made significant investments in the industry.

These energy companies are joined by Japanese electronics firms such as Sharp, Kyocera, and Sanyo, who are scrambling to secure leadership in the sector.

“Inevitably, volume has increased, solar has become more affordable. Every doubling in sales causes the costs to drop by around 10 percent, while breakthrough in materials and design are yielding dramatically higher efficiencies” Roberts added.

The numbers bear Roberts out.

In India alone, the 2004 annual report of the ministry of non-conventional energy sources indicated that power produced from the sun rose to 264 megawatts (MW) in 2005 from only 65 in 1999.

Closer to home, small, far-flung communities all across the Philippines have established their own energy facilities, using renewable sources to fulfill their power needs.

With the help of Greenpeace, local communities in Negros Occidental have put up their own equipment to source their power from the sun.

Besides reporting that there are 3,500 solar home systems in the country, the Department of Energy, in its website, also said that there are nearly 4,000 PV systems locally, which are sourced from the US, Japan, Germany, and Australia.

While their consumption may arguably be insufficient to interest power producers, they have nevertheless managed to do it by themselves, a solution which Leipold thinks the ADB should appreciate.

Thinking small is thinking big

To think big about energy, one has to think small. Or so according to Leipold, who says that energy experts at the ADB have long been used to “centralized thinking“ about power production and distribution.

This viewpoint is perfectly underscored by how power plants operate in the country.

Take the Pagbilao island coal facility in Quezon.

Up for a capacity upgrade, the facility is soon seen to supply power to Luzon and the Visayas — areas which are presumably located far from the facility itself.

Thus, aside from producing its own energy, the plant will require cables and distribution equipment — which, in turn, will require more funds — so that the end-users hundreds of kilometers away will be able to benefit from the extra power it produces.

Besides burdening consumers with additional power distribution costs, this old energy paradigm merely looked at requirements of heavy users — such as business and industry — and neglected the needs of the poor.

However, the new way of thinking about energy does away with “thinking in big units,” Leipold said.

“We can bring it where it’s most needed, where it’s more adapted to the people,” Leipold said, referring to the small scale renewable projects that can almost be estblished in far-flung areas immediately.

While he refuses to categorize whether he is optimistic or pessimistic about ADB’s clean energy initiative, Leipold only has this to say: “Everyone accepts climate change as a reality and something has to be done about it but between saying it and doing something about it, there is quite a difference.”

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