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“Geospatial tech can help create a waste-free society”

Dr Wubbo Johannes Ockels
Dr Wubbo Johannes Ockels
Professor of Aerospace for Sustainable Engineering and Technology
Delft University of Technology
The Netherlands

The first Dutchman in space and a former astronaut of the European Space Agency, Dr Wubbo J Ockels is a scientist and a professor at the Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands. But whether at the university or in own projects like Superbus and green yacht Ecolution, he is constantly looking for innovative ways to utilise natural resources in everyday life. An untiring proponent of ‘Happy Energy’, Dr Ockels is currently involved in producing energy from a ‘laddermill’ — a windmill consisting of a “ladder” of kites. It’s not difficult to chat up Dr Ockels on the topic close to his heart — sustainable energy.

What is the scope for various renewable forms of energy like hydropower, wind, tidal etc?
We need to be more intelligent in dealing with our environment. Use of fossil fuels should be stopped immediately because it harms the environment. We should also learn to use local environmental characteristics. For instance, if you live in Norway, use hydropower because it is easy to use. And if you live in Spain, where it is relatively easy to use solar power, you should use that. People use biofuel in many areas because they have a lot of trees, but biological processes from an energy point of view are not the most efficient. Look at the island of Aruba, which has been strongly promoting sustainability. It is blessed with constant wind so they have installed wind turbines, which generates close to 60 per cent of the total power in Aruba.

A big change will be much more autonomy on a smaller scale. There might be a point where urbanisation comes to a stop, and that would be a happy future as the more we are connected to nature, the richer we are from a sustainability point of view.

There is a concept called cubic mile of oil. When different forms of energies were compared according to this concept, oil was found to be cheapest in terms of per unit cost. What is your take?
A major problem with calculations of cost is what you take into account. Once a research student decided to calculate the cost of a gallon of fuel in the US. Various costs such as subsidies to research were added and the final cost came out at over USD 10 per gallon — much more than the market price. So, it is a question of what you take into account. In case of nuclear power, you can”t calculate the consequences of nuclear waste because nuclear energy has unknown cost and you cannot compare it with anything that has a known cost. On the other hand, market price is a completely different issue, which depends on regulations, circumstances, taxes etc. If we take into account the integrated cost for the society, we are already beyond the point where sustainable and renewable energy is cheaper than the rest. In 2010, the World Health Forum estimated that governments had to spend USD 150 billion that year as a result of climatic change, which was roughly the same as the profits made by energy companies that year.

So, if you look at the total economy of the earth, it is going backwards, which is not normally how the economy works. The sun does not cost anything, but how you transfer that energy into watt is a different issue. The same holds true for oil, which is of no use until you have an engine to convert it into energy. So, the engine cost is a part of the total cost. In the Netherlands, one litre of gasoline costs EUR 1.8. The amount of mechanical energy produced by one litre of gasoline is 1.5 kilowatt hours. Thus, the cost of 1 KWh comes out to be more than EUR 1, five times more than driving an electric car powered by solar energy.

We have to develop a society free of waste. The best way to do this is to pay only for services while the ownership remains with the resources. This is where geospatial technology is extremely essential as it can help us to know the exact location of a resource so we can effectively harness it.

You once said the Chinese will save the world. But China is also one of the biggest users of coal.
To say that China is one of the biggest users of coal means that the entire world is using coal, because it comprises one-fifth of the world’s population. I meant China was planning long term. It already has plans in place to take the coal away. I wanted to assert that the West’s thinking was lacking on long-term responsibility. Although a very strong statement to make, it was made to emphasise two elements — the Chinese make our solar panels and they are a good example of long-term planning. India also has the same planning while Europe has started to do that recently.

You have been to space and that expends a huge amount of energy.
Going into space consumes around 3,000 tonnes of fuel. So, we can make use of either hydrogen or oxygen because the space shuttle”s main engines operate on a mixture of these gases. However, only the first two minutes of space travel result in pollution with the release of solid rocket crystals, after which the exhaust is water. But, water does not belong to the higher levels of the atmosphere, so you do influence the atmosphere with a space shuttle. Yet, it”s not bad as long as there is a limit to it. The atmosphere can sustain 10 shuttle flights a year; a hundred flights may be a problem. So, our current space transportation is certainly not sustainable. We may have sustainable forms in future such as space elevators, but it is still some time away.

Huge dams have a negative impact on the environment. Although it has been recognised that we can minimise the impact with several small dams instead, the idea has not yet taken off. What do you think is the reason?
A major reason for that is the feedback mechanism, where a person earning more money has more power. This way, very few people earn huge money and have lots of power. You should have some fundamental regulations on limiting the size of an endeavour. But most of the time the risk is for the society and the profit is for just a few. It is a wrong thing from a sustainable society point of view. A system with small lakes is much better for the people. A big lake may result in cheaper energy but the risk associated is also high.

However, things are going exactly in the opposite direction. We see mergers and acquisitions happening all over. Even the geospatial industry is on a huge M&A spree.
That is why we need to decide quickly. We have to get an insight on the weakness of the largescale things and the strengths of diversity. We have to put regulations on them. We know use of fossil fuel is wrong and we cannot continue this way. The same holds true for the large-scale exercise of buying out all small companies. These larger organisations have large governing power but there is nobody to control it, which does not go well with the fundamentals of democracy. The need is to create awareness and educate the decision-makers about the problems and challenges facing our society. If the bigger companies realise their responsibility towards the society, then we can certainly look towards a brighter, happier and sustainable future.