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Wednesday 22 January 2020
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Commentary

The see-saw energy equation

WAYNE KUBLALSINGH

A NATION lives and dies by its capacity to access reliable and affordable energy, whether it is firewood, animal fats, palm oil, coal, windmills, watermills, nuclear, solar, or oil scraped up from ponds or mined hundreds of metres below the earth’s surface. Or whether it is gas trapped undersea in crustacean or plankton decay north-east of Tobago, or the North Sea (Britain), or under the continental ice of Siberia.

Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipelines are now supplying Ukraine, Germany and Western Europe with gas, and Donald Trump and Washington are vexed.

President Trump is pretty clear why he is vexed. He wants no more wars in the Middle East and North Africa; he is pulling out the troops. He is not, by nature, a warmonger; he is a businessman. He wants the US to be less dependent on foreign oil. Often he has boasted: we have gotten rid of ISIS, but we kept the oil. This is peace oil, not war oil.

He has obeyed an oft used dictum in the energy industry: drill baby drill. He has cut down on regulatory safeguards, opened up Alaskan fields and is supporting energy farms for shale, coal, gas, everywhere in America. The US is now a net exporter, not importer, of energy. He wants Europe to buy US oil, not Russian.

But Russian gas and oil, for Europe, is cheaper. The Russian oil pipelines run right into the ribs of Europe. They are providing a better deal for Europe. And Germany, and the EU, must now determine, in the face of Trump and the Russians, not only its energy politics but, to quote a phrase used by our energy experts, its “energy mix.”

Russia and China are now great friends; China will buy all the oil in the world from Russia; it will maximise its advantage, become the undisputed global leader in exports and manufactory by 2030; and Europe and the US, the world’s default imperialists, the historical despots of the global economy over the last 500 years, will lurch into war.

In this global historical context, large contending parties and global war, what is to be our “energy mix” in TT and the Caribbean?

The phrase “energy mix” is unsatisfactory. First, our energy aristocrats have given themselves the prerogative of deciding what this “mix” should be. They have been dismally wrong in the past. Second, it is confusing, it lacks clarity. Third, it does not show a trajectory; how we get from here to there.

The phrase “energy equation” is preferable. Equation implies a formula, a systematic and calculated approach or process. For ease of illustration, we may use the term “the see-saw principle.”

As we go up with one form of energy, we go down in the other. This is as true for transport, food, technology and energy. As we enhance, or go up with, the diversity, safety, affordability and efficiency of public transport (train, bus, bicycle, boat, ferry), we go down with the number of internal combustion vehicles in the system.

As we go up with, or boost, local horticulture in fruit and tree crops, and the mainstay of our agrarian sectors, vendors, farmers, and fishermen, we go down with our food and pharmaceutical imports.

As we invest up in protonic technologies, digital technologies in banking, money, crime-fighting, and affordable sustainable housing, less WASA and T&TEC, and less reliant on government jobs, we go down on our reliance on government largesse and subsistence dependence.

And as we invest more on solar, wind, we gradually diminish our dependence on fossil fuels. Solar manufactory plants, building solar panels and batteries, and wind factories, should be pursued post haste in Tobago and the eastern seaboard of Trinidad.

As whilst we increasingly engage our own innovative youth and business entrepreneurs in the areas of physics, silica and battery technology to develop our own Caribbean panel and battery pack, we import plant, technology, capacity and disseminate its products to all our communities.

The sun and wind do not charge. Not a cent. And they hardly go out, as they frequently do in China, Europe and the US. We have full-blown, free sources of energy. Ease upward with this source, boost it, and ease down on fossil fuels. This is the ultimate see-saw equation for reviving and boosting economic production in TT.

In 2001, the Government put a huge bet on fossil fuel. Misconstruing the Gaffney and Cline Master Gas Energy Plan, which gave guidelines, not solutions, to our energy mix, they embarked on a fatal gas-monetisation plan. It involved the construction of 14 large heavy gas-based complexes in the south-west peninsula and south-central coast of Trinidad.

They bounced their heads. We did not have the gas. A global recession hit in 2008. This was not, in any event, the best way to use our limited gas reserves. The communities, from Chatham, Cap-de-Ville, La Brea, Otaheite, Claxton Bay, Pranz Gardens and Savonetta rose up. No way. Hundreds of millions of public funds were wasted.

The Government also invested heavily in energy optimisation at Petrotrin’s compound. This time they bounced their big toe. They lost hundreds of millions. They let Malcolm Jones, chief energy cook and bottlewasher, off the hook. They mothballed the refinery in preference to working in good faith with the OWTU; sidling them then saddling them with the mess. Not good.

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