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     Aug 28, 2007
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SPEAKING FREELY

Alternative energy: It's not for everybody
By Michael G Gallagher

hawking weaponry may be, it's not going to be able replace Russia's reliance on pumping oil.

The Russians are certainly aware of their heavy dependence on fuel exports. In April, the government announced that it was planning to spend $1 billion over the next three years to develop a nanotechnology industry with the aim of eventually reducing Russia's over-reliance on energy exports. But despite their



recognition of the problem, the Russians may find it very difficult to wean themselves from the easy money provided by petroleum exports, not to mention weapons sales. Kalashnikov rifles and MiG fighters are more the symbols of Russian industrial prowess than kinder and gentler products such as mobile telephones and notebook computers.

Disruptions in the political and economic life of oil-producing nations could follow closely behind any major switch by their customers to alternative energy technologies. Divided between a Muslim north and a Christian south, Nigeria simply has no reason to exist as a united country without its oilfields.

Russia, without the massive cash flow provided by its oil and natural-gas reserves, would be forced to rely for its continued economic existence on the far skinnier profits generated by other raw-material exports and its none-too-competitive factories. Sliding incomes could drive the Russians to peddle their military hardware at fire-sale prices in trouble spots around the world.

Doing the big switch to alternative energy is often described in the West as one of the best ways to pull the teeth of Islamic radicals. "Starve the beast" is the phrase often used when talking about using new energy technology to counter the jihadis' ready access to Middle Eastern oil money.

But mortally wounded predators don't die easily, and any large-scale switch to renewable fuels may cause a violent backlash from the jihadis as they see Islam's only real claim to importance in world affairs relegated to dusty exhibits in a science museum. The jihadis see themselves as the only true defenders of Islam. They aren't going to sit back and do nothing as the culture they've sworn to defend with their lives is transformed into a vast theme park frequented largely by infidels.

And the switch to alternative energy doesn't have to be anywhere near 100% to put a big crimp in the finances of most oil-producing nations. Even a scenario where just 20% of the world's gasoline consumption is replaced by biofuels is going to induce a bad case of chills in the economies of many oil-producing states.

Another ugly fact that will become more apparent as time goes by is something that was mentioned earlier - most fossil-fuel-exporting countries are technology consumers, not technology producers. Even if the developed countries banded together to give energy producers such as Algeria free hydrogen fuel cells and solar panels, those states still aren't going to have anything to sell that will compensate for the shutting off of the oil spigot.

By 2025, many people in Iran or Algeria may have safe, clean reliable sources of energy for their tarpaper shacks.

The only way to ease the transition to an alternative-energy economy for today's fossil-fuel-exporting countries might be some type of international agreement that allows for the controlled phase-in of the new energy technologies. Stretched over a substantial period of time - let's say 15 years - such an orchestrated introduction of new energy tech might give fossil-fuel-exporting nations time to adapt to the new energy economy and develop their own technology sectors, which would give them the means to create products that would provide them with the income to survive the transition to renewable fuels.

The big problem with this idea is that once a new technology reaches a certain level of maturity coupled with reduced costs, it can spread very rapidly. In 1908, Henry Ford began mass production of his famous Model T automobile. By the time the last Ford Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1927, 15 million of the ugly-duckling cars had sent the buggy-whip manufacturers straight into the history books.

The domination of the skies by commercial jetliners happened even more quickly. The first successful passenger jet, the Boeing 707, entered service in 1958. The last commercial airline flight of the propeller-driven Lockheed Constellation, one of the mainstays of commercial aviation before the arrival of jets, took place in 1967.

The idea of a controlled, gradual phase-in of renewable fuels also suffers from another problem that is closely tied to the rapid spread of any new technology: the desire of those who expect to benefit most from the introduction of a new technology to adopt the new way of doing things as quickly as possible. It's difficult to imagine any corporation willingly agreeing to an international treaty that dents its ability to make money, or a nation voluntarily limiting its economic freedom for the sake of another, particularly if the other country is viewed as a potential enemy.

The birth of an alternative-energy economy is necessary from the twin standpoints of environmental protection and international energy security. But don't be too surprised if there are many people who will refuse to wish the new baby a long and happy life.

Michael G Gallagher works and lives in South Korea as an English instructor in the general education department, Namseoul University. He has a bachelor of arts degree in history from Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and master's and PhD degrees in the field of international studies from the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida.

(Copyright 2007 Michael G Gallagher.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

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