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Newsletter 25th January 2008

- EU renewable energy targets - Swaminathan on farming technology - Synthetic micro-organisms another step closer

EU renewable energy targets

Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, this week announced the latest EU proposals for growth in renewable energy. As part of a European plan to reduce carbon emissions, energy from renewables is targeted to be 20% of the total by 2020. Individual national targets vary. The UK, where currently renewables contribute only 2%, will need to increase this to 15% while Sweden, which already has a much higher proportion, will be required to raise this to 49%.

 All countries will face somewhat different challenges. For the UK, which has been much slower than Scandinavia and Germany in introducing wind or solar power, the task is, to put it mildly, challenging. Over a 12-year period, renewable energy generation must increase 7-fold. There will be other components, but plans have been announced for a vast increase in off-shore wind capacity, with 7,000 turbines to be built. Winds tend to be more reliable off-shore, and this coupled with the unpopularity of land-based wind farms makes this a seemingly rational choice.

 However, there are additional difficulties and costs associated with erecting turbine towers on the seabed, and connection costs are similarly higher. Not only is there the complication of laying cables on the seabed, but the windy parts of the country are not often close to the centres of population where energy needs are greatest.

 Although the UK has been criticised by renewable energy enthusiasts for not supporting technologies more, this caution may actually have been quite sensible. Contrast this with the situation in Germany, where the government has encouraged solar power by guaranteeing a very high price for the power it supplies to the grid. The result is that a northern European country, not blessed with a sunny climate, is now by some way the largest generator of photovoltaic power in the world, with 968 Megawatts of installed capacity in 2006. To put this in context, however, this is still less than 0.5% of Germany's total power generation.

Germany has also backed other renewables, but its concentration on solar power is at least in part a way of developing a strong industry to compete in a world market said to be growing at an annual rate of 20%. It already provides 40,000 German jobs, so the government may well find the high subsidies for solar energy benefit the economy in indirect ways. The government has backed solar power for one reason in public, but for another in reality.

In contrast to the German approach is the use of direct solar heating for water systems around the Mediterranean, which anyone who has spent a holiday in Greece will be familiar with. Here, we have a relatively cheap technology deployed in a country with high amounts of sunshine. This makes absolute sense economically and environmentally.

The search for new technologies is good, in the power generation sector as anywhere else. Because they are new and uneconomic, they require support, whether from private or public sources. However, there comes a point where demonstration projects make the transition to full-scale deployment and it is at this point where governments may have difficult choices to make. For a technology which is uneconomic but which is making continual efficiency gains and has further potential, some degree of public backing may be appropriate. But if subsidies skew the market to the extent that one particular route is favoured above others, this may well be detrimental.

Solar power is by far the most expensive of the currently-deployed technologies. It has its place for small-scale local generation under some circumstances, but it is inconceivable that it could become the appropriate choice for large-scale generation over the next few decades. Favouring it above other options will not help us get to the most efficient mix in a generation's time. Wind power, although closer to being economic, suffers from other well-known drawbacks. It has its place, but backing it as a winner will do little for energy security.

Swaminathan on farming technology

M S Swaminathan, the distinguished Indian scientist, has called for a harmonisation of organic agriculture and biotechnology, to give an "Evergreen" revolution. He recognises the need to produce more and more food while minimising ecological impacts. He plays a leading role in encouraging food security for India and his eponymous foundation has recently developed a GM rice variety, tolerant to salinity, which could be grown in areas prone to flooding by seawater.

His position highlights what should really be self-evident: farmers should have access to all available technologies and should be free to combine the best of them to suit their needs. Organic farming principles have much to recommend them, but the movement is now rigid and doctrinaire, laying down strict rules rather than flexible principles. Above all, the insistence that synthetically-fixed nitrogen cannot be used rules out the current system as a way of feeding the majority of people.

But GM seeds which can reduce the need for chemical crop protection or allow less soil disturbance are ideally suited to reduce agriculture's environmental impact. Taking the best of all systems is surely the only way forward.

Synthetic micro-organisms another step closer

The ever-controversial Craig Venter has spearheaded the  next step in the creation of a synthetic micro-organism: the synthesis of a complete genome from scratch. He likens this to a computer operating system. The next step is to get this genome to function in a living cell. To complete the analogy, this is like rebooting the cell.

Such developments are very polarising. On one hand, Venter and others focus on the vast potential to design bacteria from scratch for specific purposes. This could be the quantum leap which accelerates the conversion of chemical to biological processes and enables the economic conversion of waste biomass to fuel. On the other hand, critics are concerned about what could happen if something goes wrong. At worst, they have the nightmare of the infamous and highly speculative "grey goo" scenario of runaway self-replicating nano-bots.

In practice, synthetic organisms would be likely to be too specialised to survive outside well-controlled conditions, and it would be easy to build in fail-safe mechanisms. Nevertheless, any new technology is essentially neutral, and the dark side of human nature can always find potentially damaging uses for it. But this is not an argument for stifling innovation. The problem lies in Mankind rather than science. Better that we have the debate about this now rather than put our heads in the sand, but synthetic biology needs to be seen primarily as an opportunity rather than a threat.