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Third World energy in terms of US policy

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Author(s): Sobhit Mahajan
Jun 15, 1993 | From the print edition

Fueling Development: Energy Technologies for Developing Countries Publisher: US Congress, Office of Technological Assessment, 1992 Price: Not mentioned

AN INDICATOR of a society's level of development is the quantity and quality of the energy it consumes. This is made clear by the wide disparity in per capita energy consumption in industrialised and developing countries. USA consumes more energy annually than Africa, Latin America, India and China put together.

If energy is the key to development, what are a developing country's options to meet its growing energy needs? Historically, the answer has been an increase in energy supply, with the energy mix differing from one country to another. China, for example, has met its energy needs through domestic coal, while India has allowed oil consumption to grow alarmingly.

But the strategy of increasing energy supply is clearly not sustainable -- something that non-oil producers realised during the OPEC-engineered oil crisis. Increasing oil imports in most developing countries also leads to balance-of-payment problems and debt traps. Burning fossil fuels heightens the greenhouse effect and increases acid rain. These financial and environmental constraints make it imperative to practice energy conservation and adopt energy efficient technologies.

Fueling Development is a detailed study of energy conservation and efficient technologies. Prepared by the Office of Technology Assessment, a division of the US Congress, the book is aimed at assisting US policy makers by collating empirical studies in a number of developing countries in a unified analytic framework. This analytic framework precedes an overview of the various issues and a discussion of energy use, energy supply and trends in energy demand. The book emphasises the importance of energy in a nation's economic life and notes, for instance, that in the early 1980s India spent more than 30 per cent of its total public investment on energy. It points out also that power-sector investments in developing countries would have to be a whopping US $125 billion annually to meet demands.

Given that the single largest energy source in developing countries is biomass, the book explores the role of energy in traditional economies. Unfortunately, though the authors seem to be sensitive to such issues as inequities in resource distribution, access to resources and the role of women and children, they treat these matters much too cursorily to be of much use.

Much of the book consists of a detailed analysis of energy use and related subjects. It looks at energy use in developing countries sectorally: residential and commercial, industrial and agricultural, and transport. Significant issues -- though not all technical -- are discussed in some detail.

The authors note that in the residential and commercial sectors, there is consumer resistance to energy efficient appliances, largely because of high initial costs. The stress on policy options to encourage use of efficient appliances need to be thought out.

The transport sector in developing countries consumes the least energy, but increasing urbanisation and the integration of rural areas with urban centres will make this a high-growth sector. In most developing countries, the transport sector consumes the highest oil, most of which is imported. The burgeoning demand on oil can have a devastating effect on the balance of payments of most countries.

The book's proposals for energy efficiency in the transport sector includes a strong case for controlled urbanisation and recommends a shift in urban transport, from private cars and two-wheelers to public transit systems. It evaluates a number of energy projects around the world, including the much-publicised ethanol conversion programme in Brazil, which, unfortunately, seems to be running into trouble.

There are important lessons for Indians to learn. The past decade has seen a phenomenal growth in two- and three-wheelers and their share of petrol consumption is about 50 per cent of India's total consumption. Given the inefficiency of their two-stroke engines and their high rate of emissions, some rethinking is required on the desirability of a policy of "filling it and forgetting it".

Be it natural gas or wind turbines, alternative technologies and fuels will be vital in energy-starved developing countries, calling for investments in commercial development. Though the initial capital costs of some of these technologies is high, long-term savings make them worthwhile. For instance, in a remote community in the Dominican Republic, photovoltaic (solar) cells meet the entire domestic requirement thus making a power distribution network redundant.

Why is the ratio of cyclists to bus travellers in Beijing important to the US Congress? The book is refreshingly candid: "...energy needs (of developing countries) directly relate to a number of US policy concerns". These include international political and financial stability, trade and competitiveness, environmental issues and humanitarian grounds.

Fueling Development is a professional document whose wide variety of sources gives it both its strength and its weakness because, while it allows sensitivity to local detail that would be impossible in a single-author work, it inevitably leads to an annoying unevenness and an incompleteness in statistics.

---Shobhit Mahajan teaches physics at the University of Delhi.

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