Our guest left Mauritius many years ago for Canada. He recently returned for a few weeks to share some of his knowledge and experience with the country’s youth in particular. Here’s what he thinks about a broad range of issues, from CT Power to the Prime minister’s choice of automobile.
Last week, you gave two presentations on “The reality of climate change and providing solutions”. How did your interest in the subject arise?
I moved to Canada with a degree in electronic engineering in the 1980s. My priority of course was to get a job, so I started a company that monitored levels of gases like carbon monoxide in buildings. In Canada, many cars are parked indoors because of the climate. That produces a lot of toxic gases that have to be evacuated. At first, it was about monitoring gas levels and just turning on the fans. I soon realized though that by changing the technology of the sensors, I could make the environment healthier and safer and reduce energy consumption by modulating the fans to work only when they were needed. Of course, this also allowed clients to save money. In 1995, I started a company involved in renting instruments for environmental testing. One has to realize that the oil and gas industry has caused a tremendous amount of damage in Canada.
What kind of damage exactly?
A lot of spillage comes from these industries and that pollutes the soil, the air, the water. In the 1990s, there was requirement that someone who wanted to sell a piece of land needed to complete an environmental assessment of the land. I was basically earning my living through the environment and it occurred to me that I had to learn more about why we were polluting it. I then stumbled on a small article about someone who had been trained by Al Gore on climate change. I wrote to him and he replied, telling me to come down to Montreal for a training course. This allowed me to meet a bunch of scientists and become an environmental presenter based on the slides used in An Inconvenient Truth. It was at this time that I realized that there was a lot of negativity towards anybody talking about the environment because of the oil and gas industries.
The devotion of fossil fuel lobbies to their cause is almost admirable…
Their power is such that even government is reluctant to do anything about it. Take the Alberta oil sands, for example. Well, they’re called oil sands for political reasons, but they’re really made of tar. I went all the way up to Fort McMurray and was shocked by what I saw. They’re basically
turning forests into deserts and toxic lakes just to get oil. More illogically still, they’re using natural gas which is fairly clean to extract the oil. That’s when I realized that I had to do my part.
You sure had your work cut out for you. So where did you start?
I started by looking at coal fired plants. Did you know that 70 % of the energy generated by these power stations is lost between the time the coal is burnt and the time it reaches the user? It gets lost as heat in the smokestack, by having to turn turbines and create steam, in the transmission…
Then you look at the other side of the equation, at where the electricity is consumed.
Take lighting. An incandescent light bulb is only 3 % efficient, which means that most of the
energy is turned into heat rather than light. I tried to look at the problem differently: so, if we’re losing 99 % of the energy between the power station and bulb, by not turning on that light, we’re basically saving the equivalent of the consumption of 99 bulbs. The best way to address the energy problem is to educate people about saving energy. Most people think that not turning on a light doesn’t make a difference, but when you think that one light bulb is leveraged on 99 light bulbs, it doesn’t seem so insignificant.
There are seven billion of us already and the happy family of humanity is set to grow by two more billion by 2050. Putting all our hopes in people switching off their lights seems a bit optimistic, doesn’t it?
Let’s look at Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFL), which are increasingly being used in Mauritius. Some of them have achieved 30 % efficiency; but they contain mercury and disposal is problematic. The next technology is Light-Emitting Diodes (LED), which saves energy but also costs about ten times more than CFLs. So I tried an experiment on my clients, which are mainly condominiums. I told them that I was able to save them, let’s say, $1 000 on their monthly electricity bills and proposed to invest the equivalent of the savings they’d make over two years in replacing all their lights, especially the ones that are on all the time. For the financing, I then went to see a green investor and offered to give him a 10 % return on his loan. Basically, the owners of the building don’t have to pay any extra and they get new lights. Also, LEDs have a long life, represent less labour costs and emit less heat, which saves on air-conditioning cost. In
one year, a six-storey building can save over 122 kilos of oil.
So you were able to solve the age-old problem of financing. It sounds a bit too good to be true, doesn’t it?
I learnt that helping the environment has to make sense, it has to offer a return on investment. We’re definitely going to have to make sacrifices but right now it’s all about harvesting the low-hanging fruit. Now that’s just the lights when you look at all the other appliances in a house or
business, the scope for energy savings is immense. Historically, energy consumption has always been tagged to GDP growth, but, for the first time, we have technologies and ideas that can buck this trend and eventually even reduce energy use.
Let’s go back to the sooty question of coal. Mauritius is envisaging building a new coal-fired power station. Strategic option or barefaced stupidity?
Let’s for a moment forget about the high costs related to the toxic gases released by these plants. In terms of strategy, Mauritius has to take three steps: the first is to maximize energy savings as much as possible via education. It’s improbable but a lot of buildings here don’t have windows that actually open. The second step is to go towards alternative energy, especially solar energy. Now, because the capital investment is so high the most important thing here is to figure out what the feed-in tariff will be. That’s critical. Mauritius has tried doing this, but as usual projects have gone to a few selected people, which doesn’t really work. Once you have a feed-in tariff that really works – it mustn’t be too much or too little -, people can make informed decisions. Do you prefer putting your money in a Ponzi scheme where you get a bit of cash back in the short-term
or in a project that’ll give you a 10 % return over the long-term?
Renewables are a long-term investment. That’s the key, isn’t it? The trouble is that energy-related decisions are often political and thus intrinsically short-term in their outlook.
True, but the economics are catching up. Three years ago, I knew one company that sold LEDs. Now when I go to trade fairs I see three or four of them. People still balk at their price but it’s coming down. A majority of people are prepared to change brands if they offer greener goods so the mindset is changing. But part of the change needs to start with business. In Mauritius, the floods of March 30 could act as a wakeup call about the fact that the environment is something we need to take care of. Government’s going to have to finally realize that it’s the regulator: people in government shouldn’t be in business and people in business shouldn’t be in government.
That line is very blurry here…
Indeed, but that’s the only way it’s going to work. Businesses can innovate and adapt rapidly, but government has to provide the framework for them to do so. Green building is one sector in which it should take the lead. On Monday, I was giving a presentation at the University of Mauritius and I measured the air quality in the auditorium and it was terrible. There were 1 000
parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide, which is an indicator of a sick building. I asked the audience whether they usually felt sleepy at around 3 p.m and somebody corrected me saying they felt tired at 2.30 p.m. I’ve done a lot of air quality studies and CO2 levels are usually highest at around 3 p.m.
If the right decisions are taken, how do you see the future of Mauritius?
If government decides to go ahead with the coal-fired power station in Albion, I think you’re going to feel the effects of pollution quite rapidly. Mercury is a nasty compound and burning coal releases a lot of it. In Alberta, for instance, you can’t eat the fish from any lakes located near coal-fired plants; it takes one teaspoon of mercury to pollute a whole lake. Sulfur dioxide is toxic at a few ppm. Whether the wind blows onshore or offshore, you’re going to have pollution problems, maybe even acid rain. I really think it’s in the country’s interest to avoid going ahead with this project. Once you build the plant you’re going to be stuck with it for 30 years whereas if you wait a bit you might be able to use Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). Energy savings could easily buy you that sort of time.
What’s the scope for energy savings in Mauritius?
A good start would be to reduce the amount of energy used in lighting and air conditioning in buildings and to add solar panels on the rooftops of hotels, for instance. With the right policies, I think you can achieve energy savings of around 30 to 40 % quite easily. This will give you time to work with alternatives. At this stage, I wouldn’t be looking to store renewable energy quite yet, not without some sort of smart grid like the one the US is trying to set up. Simply put, electric cars will initially act as storage batteries. At night, the car is charged and the energy is used during the day. If you bring electric cars in, you don’t want them to be using fossil fuel-generated energy. In the long-term you’re definitely going to have to look at petrol consumption, because the time will come when Mauritius is at the end of the line of oil tanker. Without oil, there’s no transportation system here.
Everyone would have to get back on their bikes. Wouldn’t that be a sort of blessing in
I have a dodo-related metaphor. The dodo flew over here, lost it wings and went extinct. We Mauritians tend to think we’re already in paradise and that we don’t have to make any efforts to
survive. That mindset must change because things can get out of hand pretty quickly. For example, if you’re unable to feed your people, there’s no telling what can happen. Food security and the rise in sea-level should be at the top of government’s agenda.
Where can people start?
By reducing their consumption in general, and their consumption of energy in particular. Recycling is good but it consumes energy. What message is the Prime minister sending out by driving a powerful car? He should be driving a hybrid. I saw him reading a speech as if he were
lecturing people. I don’t think Mauritians need to be lectured, I think they need to be inspired