Turning the tide for alternative energy

By Tom Baldwin, Socialist Party, Australia
Added online, July 18th 2007

Several governments around the world are currently looking to schemes for harnessing the power of the tide. Tidal power now seems to play a more significant part in plans for energy production. Tidal power is a clean alternative to burning fossil fuels; it produces no greenhouse gases or pollution. It is also a much more reliable source of power than other renewable technologies such as wind or solar power as tides rise and fall in regular patterns. Efficiency also compares favourably.

The tides’ movement is caused by the effects of gravity from the sun and the moon. Especially in an island like Australia the potential for harnessing this power is great. There are two main ways of generating electricity from the tides, with a tidal stream generator or with a barrage. The tidal stream method is simpler, relying on tides to turn an underwater turbine. These work on the same principle as a windmill but using the movement of the water, instead of the wind to turn it.

Environmental impact

Being underwater there are also far fewer issues with visual impact than wind turbines and energy production is much more consistent. Environmental impact is also low; the blades turn slowly and so do minimal damage to fish populations. Building a barrage to generate electricity from the tide is far more complicated and costly. This involves blocking a whole estuary and using the difference in height between high and low tide to generate power. A reservoir or barrier usually traps water in at high tide; this is then allowed to flow out at low tide, turning a turbine as it goes.

While tidal power is a vital technology for green energy production, like other renewable energy sources it is not the answer to all our problems. Clearly, something radical must be done to avert climate change. However, the enormous costs of building barrage systems mean they are hard to get off the ground as companies baulk at the high capital costs and slow return of profits.

Under capitalism the need for short-term profits remains the most important motive of any company, squeezing out necessary, longer-term projects. The fact that governments around the world are thinking on this scale reflects that capitalist governments are beginning to wake up to the dangers of climate change. Ultimately this system, based on the blind forces of the market, can never solve the crisis facing our environment.

Socialist planning

Only a socialist plan of the economy could allocate resources based on need, not on profitability. Money could be properly invested in research for new, clean energy sources or for improving existing technology. Money could also be made available for big projects while carefully weighing up the environment’s needs and local people’s concerns, not simply the desires of big business.

Planning would mean matching supply to demand and removing unnecessary haulage. Increasing energy efficiency and eliminating capitalist overproduction would vastly decrease the amount of energy consumed.

A democratic, socialist plan of production would also eliminate much of the waste and duplication that exists under capitalism. Competing companies replicate similar goods and products are moved around the world to increase profitability.

A socialist energy policy would see a huge increase in the use of technology such as tidal, wind and solar power to replace the burning of fossil fuels. The potential for such technology would not be allowed to go to waste.

Tidal power is an important weapon in the armoury against climate change but under capitalism this will not be enough. There will not be enough investment and big business will resist change. Only the replacement of that system with socialism can avert the oncoming environmental crisis.

The future of our planet must be given priority over the profits of a handful of billionaires.

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