Monday, March 29, 2010

Days 6 and 7 in Tokyo- Extremes

Sorry for not writing the last 2 days, but as you can tell from the title, they were a bit on the extreme side! Surviving with only 5 hours of sleep everyday is starting to take its toll on me.

Yesterday, March 28, was an interesting day for me. We talked about Energy Systems Thinking... which brought up many eye-opening pieces of information. For example, it is estimated that 85% of all fuel is used for energy (being burnt that is) and only the remaining 15% is used to produce real products such as pharmaceuticals, clothes, fertilizers, plastics, etc. Another interesting idea that I never had heard of before, was the concept of passive and active housing. Passive housing is when houses use renewable energy sources (such as solar energy) to become pretty much self-sufficient with regards to their own energy needs. Active housing is basically the same, except that houses can actually produce energy in a surplus to their own consumption needs and in turn sell their energy to their neighbors or on the grid.

Another interesting topic was that of eco-design, which aims at using resources wisely to fulfill consumer requirements while causing minimal environmental impact. This has to be done by analyzing the environmental impact of the product throughout its entire lifecycle, from use of raw materials, to manufacturing, to distribution, to actual use, to end of its life. They gave interesting actual case studies such as the design of TV remote control systems. Apparently, the standby mode of a TV (when it is off yet waiting for a remote control to turn it on, which requires the sensor to be active), is very energy consuming if you consider all the TVs in all households. In Austria, it is calculated that this translates to 1050GWh per year, which is equal to the whole production of a certain hydroelectric power plant on the Danube! All that because people are lazy enough to not get up and turn the TV on manually!

Anyways, today was a nice break from the norms in all possible ways. Starting things off, we woke up to a splat of snow... actually more like flurries. It's supposed to be rather rare for it to snow in March and with the sakura already blossoming. Last time that happened was like 3-5 years ago, or so the Japanese students tell us! It wasn't that much, and didn't accumulate on the ground, but at certain times it was coming down in a fury that Spring is just not used to. At least the mountains were capped with a brisk whitish powder. Not sure if it is clear in the picture here, but I guess you'll have to take my word for it!

To make things even more interesting, in the middle of our first session, at 10:30 am, while we were sitting down and discussing things in our groups, there was a little tremor... a quick look at the Japanese Meteorological Agency website for Earthquake information showed that the epicenter was not too far from Tokyo and about 4.3 on the Richter scale.

Today we spent all the session time in some case studies regarding alternative energy sources. The lecturers split the participants into groups according to regional proximities such as all the japanese together (the largest group), European countries (Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and France), Sub-Sahara Africa, MENA (Egypt, Tunis, Morocco), etc. Our group, the MENA region, discussed alternative energy in the region, particularly wind energy along the coasts of Morocco and Egypt, and solar energy in the Sahara desert. First time for me to hear about an interesting project proposed, called DeserTec, which basically calls for utilizing the solar and thermal energy in the Sahara to generate electricity and for desalination, and share it with Europe via a trans-Mediterranean electricity grid. The EU will also contribute to the grid using wind energy from the northern regions and biomass energy generated throughout the whole of Europe. It is calculated that if an area of a couple thousand square kilometers in the desert were to be utilized correctly, it can generate enough electric energy to power the whole world. Pretty ambitious, huh?

There were three main things I didn't like about the current DeserTec plan though:
  1. The EU is planning on raking in 80% of the energy created
  2. There are no plans for sharing the energy with sub-Saharan countries in Africa and other Arab countries
  3. There is no plan on privatizing the company and decoupling it from governments and other political powers
So we devised a plan to sort of *ahem* *ahem* exclude the EU and other external bodies from controlling and regulating this organization. We especially meaningfully meant to exclude the EU because they taught us a few days ago about using resources from other countries (such as buying land) is a form of "modern colonization" and the example put forth was that of Egypt buying land in Sudan. I thought that was such a dumb example since originally Egypt and Sudan were separated because of European colonization. I also thought it was meaningless for Europe to take so much energy since we're also supposed to be developing, and moreover, one of the roadblocks we'd face in rolling out this project, are all the ~30 million landmines planted in the Egyptian Western Desert by European countries during the WW2. This is the largest minefield in the world, and everyday Egyptians are killed or mimed. They should concentrate their efforts and money in sweeping these areas, which is very expensive, and moreover their moral responsibility to do so anyways. You should have seen their faces when we said that! They were very surprised and even cut me short, saying we were out of time, even though we didn't take more time than the other groups. Anyways, maybe I'm over playing this, but I felt that they almost didn't think that we deserve all this energy, be it fossil fuel or solar or otherwise.

Just my 2 cents! All good stuff anyways... looking forward to more discussions.

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