OPEC, Nairobi, and energy's future

In the United States drivers could count pennies that might be shaved from the price of a gallon of gas. In the developing countries, villagers could hope for new forests to replace used-up supplies of their major fuel, firewood.

In Greece, one whole village could look forward to meeting its energy needs from a solar power plant.

These were a few of the offshoots from a weekend of energy events about as symbolic as they come.

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An OPEC meeting at Geneva ended in disarray over oil prices. A UN conference at Nairobi ended in consensus on new and renewable sources of energy. A solar world forum at Brighton, England, began with 2,000 experts from 76 countries discussing projects such as the one in Greece.

In effect the past and present of oil and other fossil fuels were confronted by the future of alternatives that have to be developed before those fossil fuels run out.

Now OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) wins the front-page headlines, and the United Nations Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy gets tucked inside. But these latter sources should be no less in the forefront of world attention.

It would be shortsighted in the extreme to let the wind be taken out of their sails by all the talk of short-term oil abundance and possible OPEC breakup.

Indeed, part of the pressures on OPEC for lower prices stems from the world's use of the "resource" of conservation to reduce demand for high-priced OPEC oil. Now Mexico is supplying the US with oil for its strategic reserve at a price even lower than Saudi Arabia's $32 a barrel. The possible savings at the gas pump come from a failure of OPEC to agree on a uniform price low enough to suit the dominant Saudis, who appear to have the most thoughtful view within OPEC of a world in transition away from oil.

The UN conference's consensus did not extend to assuring the funds for what needs to be done in providing fuel wood, hydropower, windmills, and other renewable sources for the developing nations. Its consensus on their plea for a coordinating body went only as far as setting up a committee for further study.

But the rich and poor nations assembled did agree that it was imperative to develop a spectrum of alternatives to fossil fuels.

The very holding of the conference might be seen as a vote for that goal. Despite the lack of "action" to go along with the commitment, it maintained what one UN official called a link to the future.

It is a future in which much more will be heard about the topics at Nairobi -- including the solar options being brought together in Britain this week.

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