Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Saturday, Jan 17, 2004
Columns - E-Dimension
On energy entertainment and $36 trillion of lost revenues
Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran's book is on `how the coming energy revolution will transform an industry, and change our lives.' That would seem as refreshing as the cover, because this is a world we routinely see as an ecological cliff-hanger, what with `global warming, rolling blackouts, massive tanker spills, and oil dependence'.
But Vijay sees `great opportunity', and the blurb has this to say about his work: "An entertaining look at the economic, political, and technological forces that are reshaping the world's management of energy resources. It debunks myths without debunking hope." For this, Vijay goes after people who "hold the keys to our future."
The intro asks a straight question: "How much is a barrel of oil worth?" Now that we are at the receiving end of the APM, a simple answer would have the keyword `market'.
"If you could ask Osama bin Laden that same question, you would get a very precise figure: $144," writes the author. Here is what Osama's thoughts were on energy economics, years before 9/11 shot him into the most wanted list: "He had accused the US of the biggest theft in history for using its military presence in Saudi Arabia to keep oil prices down. He calculated that this hostile takeover of his country's patrimony added up some $36 trillion lost revenues and he insisted, America now owes each and every Muslim in the world around $30,000. And counting."
For the curious, there are enticing chapter heads, such as `Oil the most dangerous addiction,' `Why California went B.A.N.A.N.A.s,' `Welcome to global weirding,' `Rocket science saves the oil industry,' `Micropower - Thomas Edison's dream revived,' and so on. For the author, energy technology is `bigger than the Internet,' and the epilogue states `the future's a gas.' And, that `fruit' near CA you might be puzzling you is, `build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody'.
Inside the book, you would know that Enron's collapse teaches that liberalising energy markets correctly is a sensible thing to do; that the seawall Maldives government built to combat waves and storms cost $4,000 per foot; that, every year in developing countries, at least a million people die from outdoor air pollution; and that squeezing the last 5 per cent of a particular pollutant out of the air or water is usually much more expensive than it was to remove the first 5 or even 50 per cent. And lot's more of energy and eco stuff.
There is a discussion of energy Internet, something that may sound queer. "Add a bit of information technology to a microgenerator, and it will be able both to monitor itself and to talk to other plants on the grid."
If that sounds as simple as adding sugar to coffee, here is how the microgrid, in which dozens or hundreds of micropower units are linked together, would work: Like "lots of Jo Six-Packs talking with each other." Don't laugh it away, because "electricity is every bit as important as telecommunications." For instance, the $200-billion-plus electricity market of the US is larger than those for cellular and long-distance telephony combined, points out the author.
The future belongs to fuel cells, they say. So, what are fuel cells? "They are big batteries that run for as long as fuel is supplied. There are various types, but nearly all work by combining hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity, while resultant emissions are no worse than water and heat." The basic concept is more than 150 years old, says the book, giving credit to an English judge and tinkerer named William Grove, who created a `gas battery', an early version of today's fuel cell. "Fuel-cell systems can provide high-quality electricity with 99.9999 per cent reliability." What about the economics?
A decade ago, a stack of cells to run a car cost $30,000, but now it is down to a few hundred dollars, mainly because the amount of platinum required has fallen drastically. "The cost of a fuel cell has already fallen to below a few thousand dollars per kilowatt of generating capacity, but car firms still have a lot to do: to compete against the internal combustion engine, fuel-cell costs must come down to about $50 to $100 per kilowatt."
Is that already making you rethink your options for the second car?
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