New and renewable

How could Boston air-condition its buildings, make fresh water, and become a major producer of table salt, magnesium, and sulphur -- all in one operation? By using ski- slope snowmaking technology to freeze mineral-rich seawater at less than a hundredth of the cost of conventional methods. Or so says self-style "nuclear dropout" Theodore Taylor, who has turned from atomic-bomb designing to full-time pursuit of renewable sources of energy. He is an example of the thinking big about the fueling of tomorrow which must be part of the current world energy conference, along with such efforts as providing villagers with firewood for today.

While Mr. Taylor tells us in the New Yorker how many millions of barrels of oil could be saved through the massive use of ice, the delegates in Nairobi are sharing a whole spectrum of harsh facts and hopeful remedies. They have come thousands-strong from 154 countries to the United Nations Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy. The importance of their topic may be hinted by the reported "very active" participation by OPEC members. They want to prepare for the post-oil era even as, in another forum, they talk about the oil glut.

It would be most shortsighted for others to let present supplies of conventional fuels contribute to a relaxation of concern about developing alternative sources -- and the measures of energy-efficiency that economically produce fuel, in effect, by saving it. The world's biggest energy user, the United States, will be watched to see if the signals of lessened government support sent by the Reagan administration are offset by effective proposals and its preferred marketplace realm.

The administration cuts federal solar and conservation programs by 74 percent. Thus it challenges itself and the American people to ensure that this does not mean abandoning renewable energy and energy-efficiency goals. The administration reportedly instructs US delegates at Nairobi not to support new institutions or financing for third-world development of renewable energy sources. Thus it gives itself another challenge: to do its share in other ways to help poor nations help themselves as particular victims in a world energy situation deeply affected by US policies.

What situation will the delegates be surveying? It is not primarily one where people with automobiles wonder whether they can afford an extra tank of gas. It is one featuring the use of draft animals like camels and yaks to provide not only pulling power but dung for fuel. And one question will be how to keep the increased need of dung for fuel from depriving farmland of necessary fertilizer.

This question arises because firewood has been running out. Half the world's people have relied on it for cooking and heating, and now 100 million people do not have enough. Plans for reforestation must be high on any renewable resources agenda. Even in the US, where wood tends to be an optional fuel, it has overtaken nuclear power as a source of energy, according to recent report, and it could provide as much as a fifth of the nation's energy by the year 2000.

Wind and water are other promising sources of energy if handled with wise governmental and private policy. Over a dozen countries already have wind energy development programs. More than 20 percent of the world's electricity is now supplied by water. The developing countries have half the total potential, but only nine percent of it has been made use of.

Obviously plenty of renewable are there to be used, if the fundamental renewable -- humanity's vigorous and enlightened commitment -- is harnessed. Not only a t Nairobi but in the challenging years to come.

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