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Energy and Environment

The close relationship between energy and the environment is gaining growing recognition. In fact, energy and the environment are essential for a sustainable development. Because energy is human society's life force, people depend on it in order to sustain their modern way of life. However, the main energy sources used by humans have changed over time, causing increasing environmental problems which in turn, affect the welfare of mankind. While in ancient times the force of animals and men and the heat obtained from burning wood were the main sources of energy, nowadays, oil, coal and natural gas burning dominate the spectrum. This change has caused the so-called greenhouse effect with its resulting climate change.

Renewable energy sources

In light of this problem, it is fundamental to consider new energy sources beyond fossil energy: more sustainable sources that can be used in harmony with the environment. In this sense, worth mentioning are solar power, wind power, hydro-electric power, geothermal energy and biomass (renewable biofuel), all forms of renewable energy, in other words, energy generated from primary energy sources which are environmentally friendly.

For example, solar power uses the solar radiation that reaches the Earth and takes advantage of it, by capturing heat through optical devices such as photovoltaic panels. In turn, hydro-electric power harnesses the force accumulated in waterfalls. Often times, hydroelectric power centrals benefit from the energy of rivers to operate turbines that drive an electric generator. Dams and reservoirs are built for this purpose. Wind energy, on the other hand, makes use of wind force. Windmills and sailboats are good examples of how one can harness wind to generate energy. Meanwhile, geothermal energy is obtained through the use of heat from the interior of the Earth, especially in areas with volcanic activity.

In recent times, biomass is being used as a primary source of energy. This entails any kind of organic material originating from a biological process, either spontaneous or induced, which can be used as a source of energy. Biomass is generated through plant photosynthesis, which drives a process in which carbon dioxide and water from mineral products, without energetic value, are transformed into organic materials with high energy content. Subsequently, energy from biofuels is transformed into thermal or electrical energy or into plant derived fuels. Examples of these biofuels are biodiesel, bioethanol and biogas.

Biofuels

During the past decade, the production of biofuels has greatly increased in the world. Perhaps the most widely used is biodiesel, which is derived from vegetable oil (soybean, sunflower, palm, etc.) or from animal fats. Another common type of biofuel is bioethanol, which is obtained through the fermentation of raw materials rich in sucrose, starch or cellulose. Examples of such materials include sugar cane, corn, grasses and hay. They are used as substitutes for fossil fuel, thereby helping reduce the dependence on oil and may contribute in some way to the mitigation of climate change.

However, the increase in the production of crops intended for the generation of biodiesel and bioethanol has generated an escalating threat to biodiversity. For example, in South America, large areas are being planted with soybeans to produce biofuel in areas that are of great importance for the conservation of biodiversity and forest protection. This trend is having a major impact on the forest cover in that region.

Some estimates indicate that in many parts of the American continent, the intensification and expansion of agriculture and the associated planting of crops for biofuel production will grow exponentially in the coming years. Such scenarios are quite realistic in view of the need to meet the growing global demand for cleaner energy. The associated expansion of the agricultural frontier will cause increased pressure on natural resources, eventually causing the loss and fragmentation of forests and the disappearance of native species. Ultimately, the environmental cost associated with the production of biofuels is huge and the resulting impact that it will have on the world's environment is still unknown.

Mitigation strategies

To seek out a balance between energy production and consumption on one hand, and environmental conservation and protection of biodiversity on the other hand, national and international organizations, both public and private, have to take responsibility and embark on the road to sustainability. Fortunately, organizations, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), assist developing countries in fortifying their ability to face the environmental and energtic challenges at global, national and community levels. The objective is to seek and share best practices, by applying a policy of innovative advice and connecting partners through projects intended to help people build sustainable livelihoods.

UNDP's work in this area focuses on four priorities: 1) to mobilize funds in order to improve environmental management and to help developing "green" economies, 2) to face the growing threats of climate change, 3) to build local capacity for a better environmental management and distribute energy and clean water in a sustainable manner, and 4) to raise awareness about the environment as the basis of all developmental planning.

Some examples of the strategies implemented by UNDP in collaboration with national governments and NGOs for the purpose of mitigating the negative effects of energy consumption and at the same time protecting the environment are: the creation of carbon markets, the protection of the ozone layer, adaptation to climate change, the preparation for future disasters, the protection of international waters, and the preservation of biodiversity.

As for carbon markets, benefits for developing countries are already being garnered. There are examples where the UN and banks are implementing renewable energy projects to capture biogas from agricultural emissions in developing countries. These gases, which otherwise would be released into the atmosphere, are used to generate electricity and also to replace fossil fuels.

In order to protect the ozone layer, the organizations implementing the Montreal Protocol have established a fund to help countries achieve the goals contained in the protocol: the reduction of substances that deplete the ozone layer, such as chlorinated compounds (e.g., chlorofluorocarbons - CFCs) and bromide compounds.

Adaptation to climate change

Currently, programs of adaptation to the impact of climate change are being put into practice, to help develop the necessary methodologies, approaches and mechanisms to deal with the reality of today's climate change, as well as future threats. In this regard, the creation of green technologies to reduce pollution is essential.

On the other hand, it will be crucial that human societies be prepared for future disasters, in order to avoid energy shortages and environmental damage. For this reason, organizations such as UNDP propose to strengthen and expand regulatory capacities and the creation of government policies to reduce the risk of disasters. Such strategies include educating of local populations on how to build flood-resistant houses, and on how communities can prepare themselves for disasters, and plan for evacuations.

Finally, the protection of biodiversity in relation to energy production deserves our attention. The creation of protected areas, for example, in mountainous areas where water is captured, is fundamental in order to ensure good levels in the reservoirs which feed hydroelectric dams in tropical countries. In this regard, it is vital to attribute a monetary value to the environmental services that biodiversity provides to the human populations which rely on hydroelectric power.

Renewable energy projects in the Dominican Republic

Renewable energy projects which seek to contribute to the mitigation of climate change are already being developed in the Dominican Republic. Such initiatives allow the replacement of fossil fuel consumption, while taking advantage of natural resources and waste from other production processes in an environmentally friendly manner.

An example is the project that seeks to take advantage of clean energy sources to replace fossil fuels, spearheaded by Universidad Nacional Pedro Henríquez Ureña. This plan aims to generate energy from the motion of waves and tides - the so called tidal power or tidal energy - using a float. According to early ideas, the population of Paraíso, in Barahona, could be chosen for the development of the pilot project.

There are also proposals for wind power generation in the Dominican Republic, for the purpose of promoting a clean energy market. Specialist Carlos Rymer proposed the installation of wind turbines (modern windmills) in order to transform wind power into electricity. This expert reports that in 1999, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the United States published a summary of a study of wind resources in the Dominican Republic. This study estimated that the country has the potential to generate 24,600 gigavolts/hr, using 1,482 km2, which corresponds to 3% of the country's land surface. Using approximately 9% of the land, the potential is 60,000 gigavolts/hr. Rymer proposes the presentation of draft legislation to Congress for the implementation of a plan to generate wind power in the island nation, in order to reduce the consumption of nonrenewable energy, such as the burning of fossil fuels. In fact, companies such Vestas, which specializes in the development, manufacture, sale and maintenance of wind technology, are already working together to strengthen the Parque Eólico Los Cocos (Los Cocos Wind Park) in the country. The installation of several wind turbines in that place is expected, for the purpose of generating clean energy for Dominican consumers.

It is a known fact that the generation of renewable energy - such as solar or photovoltaic energy - can be expensive for the producer, and, therefore, for the consumer. To alleviate these high costs, the Government of the Dominican Republic has formulated and implemented a new Law (57-07), which generates tax benefits that encourage and regulate the development of investment and energy sources. This measure helps lower the cost of renewable energy by 75%, which makes it the most convenient, from an economic point of view. In this context, the National Energy Commission (CNE for its initials in Spanish) argues that solar power is cheaper in the long term, but in the short term a major investment has to be made using tax incentives, which could help to standardize the use of photovoltaic energy in homes.

Nuclear energy

Lastly, the Dominican Republic will soon be launching a nuclear energy project to optimize some processes, in order to reduce the levels of rivers and air pollution caused by industries in the country. The National Energy Commission is the entity responsible for this project, which will work closely with the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo (UASD) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The latter serves as an intergovernmental forum for scientific and technical cooperation in the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Likewise it tries to: encourage the exchange of scientific and technical information on nuclear energy; inspect the implementation of nuclear safeguards and verification measures of nuclear programs for civilian use; promote the transfer of knowledge and skills to enable countries to execute, safely and effectively, their atomic energy programs; formulate basic safety standards for protection against radiation; and issue regulations and codes for practicing certain types of operations, including the transportation of radioactive material. It is hoped that the cooperation of the Dominican Government with this important international organization will ensure the environmental safety under clean nuclear energy scenarios for an ever more sustainable society.