The Future of Energy Research in Mauritius: Where Should the National Priority Be?

The Oil Crisis of 1973 triggered, particularly in the United States and Canada, energy conservation and energy saving programmes that were unknown before. And never to be matched thereafter. Energy efficiency, that is, getting more output with same energy input, spread along since then with world-wide technological evolution.  If the USA were to have today the same level of energy efficiency as forty years ago, they would need 50% more energy.  However, the Jevons Paradox, which dates as far back as 1865, has been evoked to support the view that energy efficiency does not per se lead to reduced consumption in absolute terms.
Financial benefits and environmental protection are the main drivers of energy efficiency campaigns today. But energy behaviours are complex, profoundly marked by lifestyles, background, income and education. Not to mention political and administrative obstacles. There is a mythical   gap between the potential of energy saving and its actual materialisation, an ‘Energy Efficiency’ paradox.
In the same year as the Oil Crisis,   Schumacher and by Illich reminded us of the need of considering the limits of development. About the same time, Morin pointed out that the   term ‘development’   in Social Science is contrary to its biological meaning where growth is genetically predetermined. He questioned the   foundations of our very concept of ‘development’ relating it to a ‘cultural/civilizational crisis’ founded on the paradigm of Western humanism which denies all uncertainties, resting on the assumption that economic and technological development implies progress and prosperity for all.
It is right to question whether energy consumption should be increasing or decreasing in absolute terms. The positive correlation between economic growth and energy consumption has been evoked as a reason in favour of more consumption. However, the picture is complex depending on the energy supply mix, energy conversion and distribution   as well as on the end-users including the needs and life-style of consumers. In the case of developing countries and emerging economies, the coupling between economic growth and energy consumption is stronger compared to the case of the USA or the EU, for example. However, it is a fact that monsoon rains in India or droughts in China, climate-prone events, may have more influence on average rural income than does national economic growth itself.
Another fundamental question relates to the policy importance given to Demand-Side Management (DSM). If we set as an ethical principle a limit to energy consumption in order to achieve Sustainability, it implies that energy demand at user/consumer end is to be controlled to meet a given energy supply mix, and not vice-versa.  It can also be remarked that Energy Management (including DSM) represents a ‘no-regret’ tool, that is, the effort is worthwhile even if there is no such thing as climate change. This characteristic stems from a focus on ‘broader rational’, value-based ethics rather than on ‘market-driven’ economics and ‘false infinity and false sovereignty’ certitudes about the availability of resources.
‘Sustainability’ needs to be defined   differentiating   it from the possibly controversial concept of ‘Sustainable Development’ by referring to an explicit ethical dimension.  The definition of ‘Sustainable Development’   from the Brundtland   Report of 1987 continues to serve as an authoritative reference with a predominance of  economic growth as the parameter for measuring development. It may be questioned whether the definition still holds if its reference to future generations becomes irrelevant. Also, for development to be ‘sustainable’, does it suffice, for example, to have recourse to new sources of energy or to apply pollution control to eliminate unwanted effects on the environment? Does a coal-fired power plant, for instance, become sustainable if there is no such thing as climate change? There is no ethical limit within the Brundtland definition nor is there the recognition of a limit to our systems. The ‘needs’ of currentand future generations is also an ambiguous word used in the Brundtland Report. 
Einstein, as far back as 1947, blamed the tragic fate of the scientist, turned into a ‘homo-oeconomicus’ whose investigations are recuperated by the ‘morally blind’ political power which is itself living in a world of ‘phenomenal economic concentration’. Even Marshall, the father of Neo-Classical Economics, as early as 1898, perceives that ‘ecological limits would again become important’.
Energy-related research in Mauritius, and more largely in the region and in SIDS, should take into account   uncertainties related to energy issues, the ethical imperative of Sustainability, and the need for recognizing development as meaning more than just economic growth. Such a vision may not interest short-sighted decision-makers, whether in academia, politics or business. But it is crucial to shift to a different paradigm if we want to have a sustainable future. We should not re-invent the wheel, but adapting and transforming into our context innovations from elsewhere should not be neglected. Above-all, we can learn from our mistakes and  from those of others, leapfrog when needed and dare to address priorities of pertinence to our  common good, not just profit-making commercial ventures. Here are some of the possible new opportunities for research in the energy sector:
 
·      Climate change impacts in terms of temperature, cyclones, sea-level rise   and flash floods pose a formidable challenge for buildings in small-island economies like Mauritius. Urban heat-island effect, reduced green cover and increasing dependency on fossil fuels for powering air-conditioning, in spite of the availability of local   renewable energy sources, have characterized the relatively fast economic development of Mauritius over the past decades. With a very high population density of 617 inhabitants per km2 and 1 million tourists arriving annually in a land area of only 2040 km2, the sustainability of buildings in Mauritius is a critical issue. Research in the art and science of Energy Management as a tool to achieve sustainable use of energy in buildings in our context is a generic topic of high relevance. 
·      Energy efficiency indicators are used today to monitor and target energy efficiency progress. Multidisciplinary approaches are needed to gauge such evolution in terms of diverse economic, social and environmental parameters. Qualitative analysis, including local or even traditional knowledge, is  being as useful as quantitative analysis in connection with uncertainty appraisal.  Recognizing energy efficiency as a ‘no regret’ measure   implies that participative methodologies involving multicriteria life-cycle scrutiny    must be combined with thermo-economic analysis, for example.
·      Energy behavior is now becoming a major field of research extending from the impact of social networks to that of smart-metering on energy consumption. Applied holistic research in the local context is needed involving social scientists along with engineers, mathematicians and even with inputs from civil society and policy-makers. 
·      Forecasting and modeling future energy demand, including transport, is a critical topic in view of adequate and sustainable power systems planning. This requires understanding of non-engineering aspects like consumer behavior or climate data as well as having sound mathematical abilities. Such research has to consider specificities of our context. Local energy-environmental interactions should be further researched e.g the link between standards and state of the environment as well as enforcement aspects.
·      Vying with world leaders in wind power or photovoltaic technology development is not our priority. However, there are a number of research niches where Mauritius can strategically position itself by virtue of its competitive edge or the local/regional possibility of partnerships with global innovators: cold sea-water air-conditioning; bagasse/biomass/waste gasification; ocean energy; smart-grid/integrated power systems  for small-islands; alternative electricity storage; sustainability multicriteria assessment and enforcement particularly for  climate-change vulnerable SIDS; sustainable Energy Management e.g for  the tourist sector or for a  biorefinery/flexifactory.  Mauritius has to be involved in prospective technology watch along with strategic allies in these energy-related areas and be ready to be an early adopter of innovative breakthroughs to be applied in its context.