Saturday, October 15, 2011

Clean power: Maldives leads the way with a carbon dream

It’s quite a letdown. As tourists come into land in the Maldives – renowned for their pristine beauty and environmental campaigning – they are confronted with the world’s biggest island built of garbage.

Thilafushi – once a lagoon seven kilometres long by 200 metres wide – is an elongated semi-circle of hell on the threshold of the much-marketed paradise. Admittedly, the Maldivians have always taken a cavalier attitude to rubbish – the words for waste dump and beach are identical in the local language – but the island, growing at a square metre a day, is something else. Stinking smoke from pyres of plastics streams into the sky, while poisons leach out into the surrounding water.

But now the artificial island is to gain a different symbolism. For the bonfires are to go, replaced by a modern plant to turn the garbage into electricity for the nearby capital, Malé. And a new, much bigger plant to generate power from renewable biomass will follow.

It’s all part of an ambitious aim, announced two years ago, to make the Maldives the first carbon neutral country by 2020. And although the low-lying 1,190-island archipelago is one of the nations most threatened by the rising seas brought on by global warming, it is aimed as much at economic as physical survival. “For us, this is not just an environmental issue,” President Mohamed Nasheed told an environmental symposium at the resort of Soneva Fushi this week. “We would need to become carbon neutral even if there was no such thing as climate change, simply because it is more viable economically.”

The country spends 14 per cent of its GDP – more than on health and education combined – on importing fossil fuels, mainly diesel, and this will rise as oil prices increase. Generating energy from the sun and biomass is much cheaper. The plant on Thilafushi – burning imported wood pellets from sustainable sources – will produce power for 30 per cent less than from diesel.

Much the same goes for other island, and some mainland, nations all over the Third World, and the Maldives hopes they will follow suit. But, though simple to articulate, the zero-carbon goal looks difficult to achieve, and it is easy to be led astray.

Wind power companies descended on the country soon after the goal was announced and Manmohan Singh, prime minister of India – which has a large wind industry – briefly persuaded Nasheed. But the wind scarcely blows in the islands for months on end, and the country’s new plan – drawn up with the help of a British engineer, Mike Mason – gives it short shrift.

The biomass plant is best suited for Malé, which is probably the world’s most densely populated city, with 100,000 people packed into just two square kilometres (if everyone came down from its forest of high-rise buildings at the same time, they say, there would be no room for them in the streets). And solar power, which is almost as cheap, looks the best bet for the 200 inhabited islands and 100 resorts scattered through the archipelago.

Meanwhile, the government is eliminating import duty on electric cars and motorbikes, leaving petrol and diesel ones subject to a 200 per cent mark-up. This month it will scrap the tax on renewable energy equipment and super-efficient appliances like fridges. And it has introduced a feed-in tariff to pay those who generate their own clean power.

All the same, it looks as if it will fail to meet its goal, for – while providing half the country’s power from renewables is relatively straightforward, and getting to around 80 per cent is possible – it is proving formidably hard and expensive to go all the way. For the Maldives has no reliable, constant form of clean power – like hydroelectric or tidal energy – and though the sun rises every day, it sets at night and occasionally hides behind clouds.

Thus, solar energy has to be stored in batteries and it is prohibitively expensive to provide enough to cope with a string of sunless days, though costs are expected to fall. Replacing diesel for fishing boats and ferries will be tricky. And to cap it all, the government has just contracted with a Chinese company to provide a gas power station, partly to provide back-up for an ill-conceived windfarm, decided upon before the plan was drawn up.

So the bold zero-carbon goal is being quietly downgraded to 80-90 per cent carbon free, still an extraordinary achievement in just a decade, with the hope of completing the job later. As the plan puts it: “We can do it – almost!”

March of the pylons continues – with a small improvement

'Encase your legs in nylons/Bestride your hills with pylons/ O age without a soul;/Away with gentle willows/And all the elmy billows/that through your valleys roll.”

Thus John Betjeman in 1966, and he is by no means alone among the graveyard great and good. Such eminences as Rudyard Kipling, Hilaire Belloc and John Maynard Keynes were campaigning against pylons as long ago as 1929, just a year after the first was erected, outside Edinburgh. And the dislike remains strong, as opposition to erecting them in the Cambrian Mountains and Suffolk’s Constable country testifies – though, believe it or not, there is a Pylon Appreciation Society (membership fee £15) for “anyone who is interested in or inspired by transmission towers”. Already, 80,000 march across Britain and there will be more as our energy supplies are increasingly electrified, whether from using renewables, nuclear power or shale gas. But at least it seems that the traditional 165ft monstrosities are going to be replaced by a smaller

T-shaped structure, announced yesterday as the winner of a competition.

Of course it would be better to bury power lines in the countryside. Better still would be to use electricity more efficiently so less needs to be generated. For as Betjeman went on: “And if there is some scenery,/Some unpretentious greenery,/surviving anywhere,/It does not need protecting/For soon we’ll be erecting/A Power Station there.”

Even builders come out against planning free-for-all

Now here’s a turn up for the books. The British Property Federation, one of the few supporters of the Government’s explosive draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has endorsed one of this newspaper’s key criticisms in strong ethical terms.

Its chief executive, Liz Peace, told the Commons Environmental Audit Committee this week: “We think it is morally right to seek brownfield land before looking elsewhere, such as the green belt”, adding that its members “would have no problem with this being enshrined in the NPPF”. That pretty much explodes ministers’ insistence that their weak, and heavily qualified, injunction to use “land with the least environmental or amenity value” will suffice.

No doubt ministers will be relieved that the consultation period – planned for the normally quiet holiday and party conference period – ends on Monday. However, the changes – or, as they would prefer “clarifications” – are, if recent assurances are anything to go by, likely to be substantial. So will it be good enough to alter the document and present it as a fait accompli? Or should they submit their amended proposals for another, if briefer, public consultation? Asked by the committee, planning minister Greg Clark hinted that they might, without making any undertaking. They’d be wise to do so. Even government supporters do not now seem to trust it to get it right.


No comments: