Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Environmental Stuff

You would think that a sun-drenched place like Dubai would be awash with solar power wouldn't you? Well, it ain't. Possibly the most prominent use of solar power is on parking meters and a few speed cameras.

I was talking to a friend of mine about this subject yesterday. He is primarily an energy consultant, but also operates a little shop selling solar-powered doohickeys. He was bemoaning the fact that he has almost no solar panels in stock, and he will have to wait 2-3 years for delivery of new stock, at a price that would only be confirmed shortly before delivery. And the reason?

Reason 1) The technology required to produce very pure silicon is hideously expensive, and not easily obtainable on the open market. We are talking about gas centrifuges here - they are commonly (and I guess much more profitably) used to enrich uranium. You can do other stuff with them too, and purifying silicon is possibly the least profitable of those things.

Reason 2) Germany has introduced a subsidy scheme. If you have some solar panels that produce electricity that goes into the national power grid, the German government will pay you quite a bit of money for every kilowatt that you produce. I don't remember what the figure is, but it's very attractive and it means that half of the world's supply of solar panels now goes to Germany.

So, Dubai and the UAE won't be bothering with alternative energy sources any time soon. We'll just keep on burning the gas and oil that pops out of the sea until it runs out. We have an incredibly wasteful lifestyle here. Dubai Municipality, for at least the last 5 years, has been running a campaign to try to get household waste down to 555 kgs per year per household. I'm not aware of them having achieved that (and I don't even know how much trash we produce on average - it might help if we knew what the starting point was). Recycling is almost an unknown concept.

We try to do a bit of recycling - there are a few bottle banks and can banks scattered around, and a waste paper collection point. Probably one of the worst culprits for waste generation is the supermarket plastic carrier bag. Whenever I go shopping I insist that they use the least possible number of bags. This always puzzles the bag-packers, who seem to have been trained to put every single item into a bag of its own, and then put a bunch of those bags into another one. We always keep our plastic bags, and periodically (when we can't get into the kitchen anymore), we will sort them out, flatten them a bit, and take them back to the shop that gave us them in the first place. The staff at our local Choithram's think we are slightly insane, but they do take the bags back.

The other major source of waste is water. There is a tiny bit of underground fresh water (some of the older villas in Jumeirah have artesian wells in their gardens). Our tap water is desalinated seawater. Desalination is an extremely energy-intensive process, and desalinated water is produced as a by-product of electricity generation. While the tap water is said to be 100% pure, most people buy bottled water for drinking. Most irrigation water comes from a separate network. This is actually semi-treated sewerage water, and it's amazingly good for vegetation. But you wouldn't want to drink it.

And of course we are very wasteful of petrol and diesel. Yes, we have good bus services in Dubai now, and will be getting a light rail system in about 5 years' time. But for now, the primary mode of travel is the good old motor car. Government policies actively discourage car-sharing (if you take money to carry a passenger then you become technically a taxi, and you cannot operate a taxi without a hugely expensive licence). Cheap petrol means that nobody worries about how much it costs to fill a gas-guzzling 4-litre four wheel drive.

The main problem is just total lack of awareness - everybody here thinks this is a land of plenty. And they probably think they can continue this extremely wasteful lifestyle indefinitely. And the expats, of course, are mostly only here for a limited time, and have no incentive to think about tomorrow at all.