UN energy conference: getting third world off oil, onto sun, wind

Everything Kenya earns from its top agricultural export -- coffee -- goes to pay for imported oil. Many other third-world countries are in a similar or worse energy bind. The nations of Africa, for example, consume comparatively little oil. But their oil bill zoomed from $700 million in 1973 to $6 billion in 1979, according to the International Labor Organization.

This astronomic price rise has caused a run on firewood in both rural and urban areas of the third world which, if not checked, will lead to widespread desertification. In rural Africa, for instance, 90 percent of the energy comes from firewood and charcoal.

It is to help find ways out of this energy crunch that 4,500 delegates are coming here Aug. 10 to 21 for a major United Nations conference. The focus is to be on shifting away from oil toward a more efficient mix of energy sources, including renewable ones where possible.

The sages have come up with 14 renewable energy sources for technical panels to examine at the conference: solar energy; geothermal energy; wind power; hydropower; biomass; fuel wood and charcoal; oil shale and tar sands; ocean energy (thermal gradient, wave power, and tidal power); peat; energy from draft animals.

The secretary general of the conference, Enrique V. Iglesias of Uruguay, says that only 15 percent of primary energy reaches its end use, 70 percent to 80 percent is "lost along the way," and this is true for both industrialized and developing countries.

The irony of the list of energy sources is that many of them were in use for centuries, were abandoned when fossil fuels came into use, and are now coming back into use.

Take wind energy, for instance. Harnessed wind has been used by man since the Egyptians sailed their barges along the Nile 5,000 years ago. Windmills have been in use for centuries. A document says that as late as the 1930s and 1940s windmills were an important source of electricity consumed by the United States.

Tidal power was harnessed to mill grain in many European countries. English tide mills built in the 12th century operated for 800 years. And hydropower by means of water wheels brought in the Industrial Revolution.

One of the first use of geothermal energy was the ancient practice of bathing in hot springs. By 1980 geothermal sources throughout the world provided energy equal to 50,000 barrels of oil a day, and the use of geothermal energy is increasing in New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and other countries where there is volcanic activity.

Under the biomass heading experts will be looking at biogas from animal dung and other waste. India had some 50,000 biogas plants operating in 1977 but government support for this program has since been reduced.

Solar power is to get star treatment at the conference. A vast amount of work and research is going on, especially in countries with plentiful sunshine, on heating, cooking, and distilling drin king water.

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