x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Green tech abounds but the gas-guzzlers keep purring

It's not just green technology, but a green attitude that needs to be developed in the GCC.

I don't mind the long walk from gate to exit at Dubai's international airport. The stroll loosens my spirits from the cramped confines of a tiny airplane, even after a short 40-minute hop.

But on a recent journey that took me through DXB, the airport became the location of an environmental epiphany.

On this occasion I headed to the car rental counters and found out that although my credit card was good, my driver's licence has expired. No amount of persuasion could get the clerk to rent me a vehicle. So I settled for a car with a driver to take me to town and back for my two-hour meeting.

The car I stepped into was clearly new, but it was remarkable how similar the car was to my father's old yellow Buick LeSabre, built in the late 1970s. The seats were of the same configuration, albeit in leather. The windows were of the same mechanism and instrumentation, and the gear was obtrusively on the right side of the steering column. This car even had a tape player, at a time where most carmakers allow for an MP3 plug-in.

My most distressing memory that day in Dubai, however, was evoked when hearing the same purr of gas guzzling thirst that escaped the vast hood staring at me. This is 2011, the age of financial calamity, expensive oil and increasingly powerful environmentalists.

I wondered how "green" energy solutions would ever have a chance with huge international corporations stuck in an age of auto-making excesses.

There are, of course, so many different options available today that my father's generation never knew, especially for powering a car. Why wasn't I being transported in an electric vehicle, for instance?

It turns out this is not a simple question. Just because a car or a bus runs on electricity does not mean it's pollution-free. The source of electricity is the key. What's more, few sources of solar or wind energy can charge batteries. To generate enough power to propel an electric car, therefore, it's likely that fossil fuel generators will enter the equation at some point which, by default, means tons of poison gasses will be spewed into the air.

Those power plants may well be hidden away from our cities, but may end up destroying the quaint image one has of the countryside.

Not all is hopeless, though. There exists an argument for the efficiency gains in terms of the power or energy transfer through electrical motors versus petrol engines. In fact, a lot of advances in this field and in batteries are supported by billions of dollars from nations such as China and the US.

It has been recently reported that due to the efficiency factors in the transfer - or transmission - of energy into the creation of batteries, if one were to start with a natural gas power plant, the overall efficiency of an electric car hovers at around 48 per cent. The efficiency of an automobile running on gasoline is 25 per cent.

Solar cells, perhaps the cleanest option, have an efficiency that lies below 20 per cent, although no carbon is generated.

As the car travelled towards my meeting that day, my mind kept wandering. Wouldn't it be refreshing to have a GCC investment fund into these technologies? Specialised universities in geology, petrochemicals or chemical engineering have not really flourished in this region, and as a result, we can feel hostage to new technologies and advances that we struggle to control or manage or even understand.

We also have a stubborn sun that shows us its face 354 days of the year. The creation of solar power academies and advanced physics and electronic research institutions should be the new mantra for our policy makers.

Considering that these ideas came to me during a recent visit to Dubai's airport, I'll use the air travel industry as an example: why not cover these colossal structures with solar panels, which could serve as a model for other sectors?

Or what about starting a design competition for local engineering firms for better solar energy output? Make it a 10-year contract. The unmatched visibility can be a serious incentive.

Of course, if car makers continue to favour gas guzzlers, and consumers keep buying, perhaps all this pondering is in vain. After all, it is not really green products that we are missing, but a greener attitude.


Anees Sultan is a writer and businessman based in Oman