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World: Big Business Seeks Energy Alternatives

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 9 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The major flooding which swept through Poland, the Czech Republic and eastern Germany this summer caused hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage, as well as immense human suffering.

The flooding was on an unprecedented scale, like so many of the natural disasters seen around the world in recent years. There's nothing new about weather-related disasters in themselves, of course. They have always occurred in nature and always will. But there is something disquieting about the scale and frequency of the events -- and there's a growing body of scientific evidence to suggest that the world is going to experience more floods, more storms, more natural catastrophies -- more often than in the past.

That's because the earth's atmosphere is getting measurably warmer. The scientific community can't yet agree on why, whether its a natural trend or a result of human activity. But the weight of opinion is that mankind is responsible through our vastly increased burning of fossil fuels, as well as the rapid disappearance of the earth's green canopy. This in turn is held to be changing wind patterns, producing more violent and unpredictable weather.

Environment groups have long been issuing dire warnings, and governments have been reacting in the past decade with policies which generally fail to achieve their objectives. But the growing sence of urgency over the climate has produced a unexpected link between mainstream big business and environmental activism.

Insurance companies, who bear the biggest burden of paying for storm damage, are becoming keenly interested in supporting research into climate change, and altenative forms of energy. Remember that in 1992 alone, when the two big hurricanes Andrew and Iniki hit various parts of the United States, U.S. insurance companies paid out a total of almost $23 billion for damage. The same thing is happening elsewhere, not least lately to Eastern European insurers.

In Britain, a group of British insurance companies have joined with the government's Department of Trade and Industry in what's called the Tsunami project, which is researching causes of national disasters. Tha aim is to give the insurers a better understanding of the climatic risks and how they are likely to increase. This is turn should be reflected in the type of policies which the insurance companies frame for clients.

Some companies are going beyond that into active support of alternative energy sources. One of them, Swiss Re, one of the world's biggest re-insurance companies, says it is convinced global warming is a serious issue. As a result it has decided to invest $2.75 million in an American company making solar power electrical units.

The U.S. company is the Washington-based SunLight Power International, which plans to supply and service solar power installations to areas in developing countries which are outside the reach of mains electrical power. SunLight has also attracted a $2 million investment from a German-led insurance company GAIA Kapital.

SunLight's communications manager Wendy Rodenhiser told RFE/RL yesterday that her company feels the investments represent a definitely heightened awareness on the part of big business. She expressed hope that this is the start of a new, broader trend.

She said the interest of the insurance companies had been unexpected, considering that SunLight had first approached U.S. electricity utility companies in its search for capital. She said this had seemed a natural place to start, as the utilities were already in the busines of providing power.

They had not been interested at that time, preferring to stick to conventional systems. But she said their attitudes appear now to be changing, both in the U.S. and Europe.

Rodenhiser said she considers it of key importance that the big mainline utility companies should become involved in openly backing solar power, because it would provide further evidence that solar energy is a viable business proposition -- with profits. Profit is essential in any business calculation, money losers are a charity, she said.

Solar power has also caught the attention of another major player, not in insurance this time, but in oil and gas, namely British Petroleum. BP's chief executive John Browne last week was quoted as saying his company things solar power "is something which could be valuable business". BP, which has been involved with solar energy for some time, is investing millions in a new California factory to manufacture advanced solar cells.