Comments

Pretty much everything you just said about our energy policy and habits applies equally to our health care policy. I think we are alone among western industrial nations in not offering everybody single-payer national health insurance. Which is *not* socialized medicine, because you get to chose your own provider and also buy extra services if you can afford to. But basic access is there for all. Last I looked Holland was the world's healthiest nation with the average adult now too tall to sleep in his parents' bed!

It's good that house batteries are bigger than car batteries. What if you got up in the morning and your house wouldn't start? Imagine trying to get someone to pull their house around to give you a jump.

Mike have you or any of your readers ever seen an analysis of what we or any industrialized country does with say, one thousand barrels of crude oil? As examples; how much of that quantity is refined into automobile gasoline, aircraft fuel, lubricating oil, plastics of all kinds, material for clothes, medicine, paint. I haven't but I would be interested seeing a study along those lines. I would guess that if we really want to reduce our dependancy on oil, foreign or domestic, we will have to do a heck of a lot more than just getting rid of our SUVs
E.

"the Iraq war, which is being fought to ensure U.S. access to Iraqi oil fields."

Have you gotten any replies about how the war is about terror, and freedom, and the preservation of our way of life? (Cue the music.)

Anyone tell you you're not patriotic?

How I miss the Soviet Union. Then, all someone had to do was accuse you of being a Communist. Now it's more complex.

Whenever I hear someone tell me how patriotic he is, and I'm not, I just say "Dr. Johnson defined patriotism as 'the last refuge of a scoundrel.'"

Excuse me while I put on my flag pin.

Adams is never going to qualify for Big Thinker of the Nanosecond award, true; I pretty much stopped reading him or his cartoon after one too many tinfoil rants about evolution. But he does have picked up a pretty useful idea from somewhere else.

As you say, for storing energy over a few hours, batteries are just fine. If you want to store energy for minutes, capacitors are even better (less internal losses), and it looks increasingly feasible to extend capacitor use well into the battery territory of days. But what if you want to store energy over a year?

In northerly latitudes you'd get most solar energy in the summer, while most of your energy needs are in the winter. You tend to have wind amount change over the course of a year as well, in addition to the more obvious cycles over the course of a day or a week. And for long-term storage, the energy loss while in storage becomes more important than the efficiency of storing or withdrawing it.

One variant of this idea, in use today for some office buildings and factories, is to pump warm water, warmed by solar panels (heat-generating panels are cheaper and more efficient than electricity-generating ones) or by the waste heat from airconditioning into the ground far below the building, heating it, and getting cool water back up to cool the building. Then, in winter, you reverse the process, pumping back up the warm water to heat the building again. Heat management is the major power draw for large buildings and buildings in northern climates, so this makes a pretty big energy savings.

Ive often thought it would be interesting if they built new houses with solar panels covering the whole roof with some of these modern tech l-ion batteries the power could be stored for months. If these could store enough energy to cover heating through the winter months it would be superb. In the UK we have an abundance of another natural power, wind, but the usual complaint is that wind farms destroy the countryside, so why not put them down the side of motorways and other main routes?

Mike, That was a beautiful "Sunday Walk". I had read Thomas Friedman's column earlier in the week. Friedman stated in his television documentary on energy that for our generation to be the greatest generation, we too must sacrifice, as did our parents' generation. That sacrifice does not involve our lives, but rather investing in better energy sources, and in energy conservation. That's not so bad, considering what our parents went through.
I also agree that our society tends to careen from crisis to crisis, rather than planning ahead to avoid a crisis. If we were Joseph, we would have ignored Pharaoh's dreams and advised him to go ahead, business as usual, and not to worry about stockpiling grain for the lean years to come.
I also think that the majority of us live in denial. Denial about global climate, and denial about where the oil profits go to.
In the past year I have gone into debt to purchase solar cells. Friends of mine have told me that they didn't buy solar cells because they were not very good investments. Yet they then have purchased expensive luxury vehicles that consume more fuel than necessary "because they want to". In a few years, those vehicles depreciate more than the solar panels would have cost. So it lifts my spirit when I talk to the relatively rare person who is actually committed to buying solar cells.
I think that Senators McCain and Clinton should be ashamed of themselves for advocating suspension of the fuel tax this summer. It would be far more responsible to keep the tax, and to use the $8 billion in estimated tax income for grants to US companies to help develop technologies for better energy efficiency. That would serve the US much better. It doesn't take much courage to propose such a plan. It only takes some leadership.
Finally, I must confess that I did have one other motivation to purchase solar panels. Six years ago, California was victimized by Enron and other energy traders. Californians suffered through rolling blackouts. The construction of a University of California campus was delayed because money had to be diverted to buy the more costly energy. (You see, the bad guys are not just in other countries.) Yet when California pleaded for President George W. Bush to step in and help, he demurred, stating that it was not the energy traders but rather the environmentalists that had caused the blackouts. As a regular citizen, it is difficult to effectively protest such inequity. My solar panels serve as my way to give "the finger" to the Bush administration and the energy thieves for what they put California through. That, as the advertisement says, is priceless.

Your plea for conservation reminds me of our Dear Vice Leader's comment, back in 2001 or so, that "conservation may be a personal virtue, but it's not a basis for a sound energy policy." Or something like that.

That then reminded me of this gem:

http://archive.salon.com/politics/feature/2001/05/10/tips/index.html

You thought this was nutty. Here in Australia, the Snowy Mountains Hydro scheme (one of the great engineering marvels of yesteryears and a significant factor in the country's multicultural makeup due to the large influx of migrant workers) uses coal powered energy at night to pump water back up into the system so it can be used for clean hydro power during the day. This is necessitated by reduced catchment supply arguably due to climate change caused by ... you get the picture.

Great article. I enjoyed reading something else between two posts on photography.

Solar Cells! Hey Mike, I found a mint Studio Deluxe for $5! The cell is only about 30mm dia. but its a start! Seriously, I do have a few questions about solar panels. What is process to make these panels? Can it be handled by a small factory or does it take a large industrial complex? What chemicals are used and how? How much water is needed and what is it's condition when discharged? From what I've observed, humans also have a propensity to develop processes and technologies whose enviromental impact is only understood a few decades down the line.

I am sure of one thing, as soon as Exxon-Mobile can control the production and sale of solar power we'll have it widely available.

There are all sorts of ways of using energy more intelligently in homes. We just haven't done so because we pay artificially low prices for fossil-based energy because we don't account for all the costs of creating that energy. That is, we WILL eventually PAY all those costs, but in the meantime we kid ourselves. That's the way humans are.

Geo-thermal heating/cooling is making inroads here in Canada. You can install the underground coils (vertically) and heat pumps for roughly double the price of a natural gas furnace (average size home). That's less than the current price of a home-sized windmill, and well within the reach of most homeowners. It's far less that the price of their latest needlessly oversized SUV.

It is possible to generate 1 kilo-watt using a natural-gas fired Stirling cycle engine generator that's smaller than a dishwasher and makes less noise than a ceiling fan. I have seen research units in model homes. It will power the needs of any reasonably-sized condo, but not a clothes washer and dryer. They are in current daily use in many places throughout the world.

These two items I mentioned can be bought now, but it's risky because there isn't a broadbased support industry for them, so there's no one to call when they break. But there soon will be.

Much of the rest of the world has had to find alternative energy sources coupled with alternative lifestyles because they've been paying four times what we do for petrol for a long time now.

It amuses me that we here in the west continue to think that we are the technological leaders of the world because of a few software companies. We should get out more.

Ernest,

The kind of analysis you want is available in many places, just not in daily newspapers or magazines. Use "google scholar". There have been review articles in places like Nature, Science, and other scholarly works for decades now. These issues have been well-known and studied for a long time.

I can't remember details, because my memory is not what it used to be, but the largest percentage (70-80% maybe) of crude oil processing is to make fuels (gasoline, diesel, kerosene, lubricants, who knows what else). The rest is used to make the thousands of industrial chemicals that are needed in daily life. In the last decade, in Europe and the US, industrial-sized plants have been established to manufacture those chemicals using biomass as source instead of oil. Biomass means anything from wood chips, corn stalks, grass clippings, and I don't know what else. Those plants have come online as the price of a barrel of oil increased.

Ask yourself why 50% of new cars in the rest of the world are diesels. For some reason, people in North America think that diesel means slow, black-smoke chugging lousy cars. That's a reflection of our ignorance, not reality. It has not been true for 20 years.

We are ill-served by our mass media. Generally speaking it does NOT educate or inform us. It's odd because most of the interesting things we should know are never farther away than a google search or two.

Here is a piece of very, very recommended reading: "Is Desert Solar Power the Solution to Europe's Energy Crisis?"

http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,550544,00.html

One of the maps shows North Africa, with three small red squares superimposed on the Sahara desert. The area of the largest of these shows what area of desert would need to be covered with solar thermal power plants to supply the entire globe with electricity.

The necessary technology has been around for many years.

"We don't have an energy problem," says Hans Müller-Steinhagen, of the German Aerospace Center (DLR). "We have an energy conversion and distribution problem."

You may be mistaken about Scott Adams's "inadvertent humor." I think he writes those pieces to rile up his readers for his own amusement, or maybe to drive up readership, or both. Often he'll telegraph this by taunting "dance, monkey, dance."

That was a great opening essay, Mike. It's really nice to read thought-provoking pieces on this very complicated subject. Some "thinking points:"

-- Big government programs sometimes help, sometimes hurt. The precipitous drop in the cost of solar power between 1975 and 1983 was almost entirely the result of a government pump-priming program. The much smaller drop over the next 20 years was also due to government policy. Industry may get there on their own, hands off ... but government policy can speed that up or slow it down by an order of magnitude.

-- it’s a common lay-mistake to think of energy as all or nothing propositions. Energy companies don't think that way; all production methods have bugs and features and a diversified system is your best protection against economic or supply failure.

Rather than worrying about how to massively rebuild/innovate the existing system to go all-solar, just look at what happens if you tied solar into the present storage/distribution network. No special storage systems, just use it when you got it and level the loads with the other sources. Run the numbers and you'll find that fossil fuel consumption drops by 30-50%. No oil-import deficit! No problem meeting greenhouse emissions standards! But...

-- It costs more. The current very high inflation in food commodity prices is half due, directly and indirectly, to increased energy costs. Governments have been brought down by higher energy costs (in this country, even). Going solar now helps protect the future, but you pay for it.

-- There are two schools of thought: you could call them "just-in-time" and "planning ahead." I'm strongly inclined to the latter, as is Mike. But here's the nasty thing; it is not obviously the best answer. I've had long discussions about this with David D. Friedman (son of Milton Friedman). David's an anarcho-capitalist and leans towards "just-in-time." Me, I'm an anarcho-communist and feel we should be planning ahead. What's clear from our conversations is that figuring out which is the best approach is extremely difficult. Not only do different problems have different answers, but modestly changing the conditions of a known problem gives you a different conclusion.

In part you are trading cost for risk (in all senses-- economic, social, environmental, and humanitarian). If you're risk-averse like me, you're inclined to spend more money now to produce a more secure future. If you're comfortable with a higher level of risk, you can avoid some expense. BUT... in the finite, real world, increased cost produces increased risk and increased risk produces increased cost. So the analysis becomes terribly complicated. It's like figuring out which is less ecologically damaging, paper vs plastic bags, or cloth versus disposable diapers. You can eventually get an answer, but a simple first-order guess won't get you there.

-- Experience says all energy production has undesirable side-effects. In the past, wind power and biofuels were touted as ideal. Before that hydropower, and before that nuclear. Do not assume solar is different.


~ pax \ Ctein
[ please excuse any word salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
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-- Ctein's online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital restorations http://photo-repair.com
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Ctein,
I actually left the discussion of source-diversity out of this essay, as I felt it was off on a tangent and would distort the main point (as well as make the essay too long).

But of course source-diversity is key. We actually have a fairly diverse system right now, the overarching unifying thread being that it's 97% fossil fuels. The only exception in my own life that I can think of is that 10% of the gasoline I buy is ethanol. My Vermont friends' exception is that they heat their house in the winter with a woodstove on the first floor--which makes perfect sense given their situation (they live in the middle of 350 acres of woods, in a sparsely populated area) but obviously is not desirable on a mass scale.

I see the future as sort of a jigsaw puzzle of various sources matched to various uses. The dependence on oil is mainly due to distribution and portability advantages--it's one of the few ways to get power into mobile units (cars) cheaply and easily. I like the idea of limited-range (say, 60 miles) electric cars with on-demand auxiliary 3-cyl. diesel engines for longer-range cruising. Pure electric cars have range and refuel-time disabilities, but if we could get the workforce to be nonpolluting on its daily commute--and especially if we could get effectively zero emissions from cars that are sitting stationary in traffic or at stoplights--we would make a huge dent in our problems.

Of course that presumes some sort of relatively clean source of electricity to start with. Electric hybrid cars don't do a huge amount of good if they're getting their electricity from dirty coal-fired power plants. But that's where solar fields could come in handy, assuming we can solve the distribution problems--imagine a system in which you'd normally recharge your hybrid electric car not at *home*, but at *work*, that is, wherever you spent the day--taking advantage of the relative plenitude of solar power during daylight hours (compared to nighttime).

It's the sort of thing that would require a high degree of social cooperation to establish--I doubt it would ever get going without organization and incentives from the government. But as you say, that's possible, and possibly desirable.

Mike J.

Dear John,

To answer some of your questions:

The kind of solar cell you have there is cheap and simple to manufacture; we could do that in our high school chemistry lab in the 1960s. Problem is that it's a very inefficient kind of cell. The installed cost per watt is very high and it takes about as much energy to make as it will deliver over its lifetime. Mind you, that's still a net gain; half of our energy is used simply to move energy around and convert it from one form to another; it doesn't do any useful work. So a 1:1 exchange is a gain. But still...

Modern solar cells are much more efficient and deliver about five times as much energy over their lifetime as they cost to manufacture/install. The cost of a typical fabrication facility is measured in 10s of millions of dollars; it's a price tag that industries can easily afford.

Water consumption isn't a big problem; almost all of that can be recycled. In fact, that's the economical thing to do in developed Western nations, because you have to do most of the cleanup on the water before you're allowed to release it into the sewage system. So why pay for new water?

Can't tell you what chemicals and how much are involved off the top of my head; there are too many different kinds of solar cells and manufacturing processes. This stuff can be a big pollution problem, if you're making cells in unregulated geopolitical regions.


~ pax \ Ctein
[ please excuse any word salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
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-- Ctein's online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital restorations http://photo-repair.com
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By the way, the solar panels that I purchased were manufactured in the United States by British Petroleum Solar.
An excellent speech forecasting the current energy problem and its ramifactions was given 50 years ago by Admiral Hyman Rickover. It can be found at various web sites, including www.theoildrum.com/node/2724.

Mike, you raise an excellent point about how we as humans have terrible foresight. One example is how the current crop of politicians has created a market for biofuels that caused more harm than good, and many of them are still hawking it even though biofuels have been discredited. I sure wish solar power would catch on in my lifetime.

I disagree with your capitalism/socialism comparison. As you said, cooperation is also an important element of capitalism. But I see capitalism as citizen-oriented and socialism as government-oriented. And I don't trust governments, so I want them to have as little money and power as possible. I don't trust big corporations any more than the next guy, but they can't legally seize my money or dictate how I live my life; the government can, and does, do both.

Speaking of the joys of capitalism, I donated to your site yesterday by following the Amazon link to buy a speedlight I've been wanting.

"even though biofuels have been discredited"

Eric,
Biofuels have been "discredited"? Are you sure? Or is it possible that you've been influenced by a propaganda campaign paid for by oil and coal interests seeking to suppress competition from biofuels?

I think the jury's still out on that. The battle for public opinion is fought in some dark places.

Mike J.

Dear Eirc,

Biofuels have not been discredited. Foodstuff-based biofuels have been shown to be a bad idea saved as a stopgap measure. But that's not where most of the biofuel research is these days. Also, the studies that purport to show that biofuel consumes more energy than it produces are incomplete in several ways. One of the most important being the point I alluded to discussing solar cells above, namely that half the energy budget (or more) goes into getting energy in the form you want where you want. If you can actually convert local, relatively immovable energy sources into highly portable energy at even a modest net cost, it's still a gain-- just not as big a one as you thought.

I do not wish to debate government versus corporate rule. I would only remind you that before the government passed anti-discrimination laws, big corporations could and did dictate the way you had to live your life. They would fire you if you did not meet their religious, political, or moral standards, and those were usually quite narrowly prescribed (basically, what the person running the company thought was the RIGHT way to live). While in theory you had the option of finding another job, when you are talking about large corporations the options in one locale were frequently very limited; if you're talking about moving substantial distances to find a new job, well, you could say the same about getting out from under the thumb of the government. Relocation works either way. Also surprisingly enough (not!) the values of the plutocrat class were remarkably similar from firm to firm; you did not exactly have a diversity of acceptable lifestyles to choose among.

This is not supposition, this is real history. Be careful who you decide to call your master. In the current world you might very well be better off living under the thumb of a company then the government... but that's only because there are laws to protect you from the most dire consequences of the former.


~ pax \ Ctein
[ please excuse any word salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
======================================
-- Ctein's online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital restorations http://photo-repair.com
======================================

"And I don't trust governments, so I want them to have as little money and power as possible. I don't trust big corporations any more than the next guy, but they can't legally seize my money or dictate how I live my life; the government can, and does, do both."

I used to believe that but I fear it may be wishful thinking. Was it in Bolivia where some corporation received the monopoly contract for a city's water supply and then arranged to have the city pass a law making it illegal to collect rainwater. Corporations hate competition and will everything possible to get in cahoots with tame obedient governments to get every nickel out of you that they can.

Be careful wishing for your weak powerless government, you may get it.


There's a quote by Mussolini wherein he says they shouldn't call it Fascism but "Corporatism" instead.

Dear Mike,

I agree that source diversity is a whole 'nother topic. Electricity is cheaply portable in space but not in time; vice versa for nuclear and fossil fuel. I only wanted to raise it because I saw many people falling into the trap of trying to figure out how to make solar the 100% solution. This is not a criticism of them; many, many smart people have fallen into that trap. Fortunately it's one that's easy to avoid when you realize you're slipping into it.

The really smart and knowledgeable people I talk to about this don't give me an answer that I'm terribly happy with: to properly solve the mess we're in we're going to have to accept a mix of *all* energy sources. That means more coal-fired plants and it means more nukes, along with all the "good" stuff. A tough pill to swallow.

We can get large-scale solar without large-scale planning, simply by sitting back and waiting as more and more people and businesses put solar panels on their roofs and tie into the grid. It doesn't actually require any coordination or incentives. This is the place where David and I would part company; I don't think that works well enough or fast enough, and he would argue the opposite. If I had to I could probably argue his side of it; the analysis is exceedingly nontrivial. I have an uncomfortable feeling that a lot of it boils down to gut instinct and intuition, which doesn't exactly give me much confidence in conclusions either way.

Plug-in hybrids are an extremely good idea (so far) regardless of the electricity source. Some are better than others. Yet, even with coal-fired plants, there is (probably) a big environmental advantage. It is much easier to clean up pollution from a single source than a bunch of automobiles. Also, the energy efficiency of the total system is considerably higher. CO2 is the big, unobvious nasty. Coal produces a lot more CO2 per raw watt-hour than petroleum fuels, but when you take into account the total system losses, I do not know if coal-fired plants produce more CO2 per *productive* watt-hour than automobiles do. If someone reading this has a source for me on this question, I would love to be directed to it.

At a more suppositional level, technologies exist which could sequester the CO2 from coal-fired power plants. They have never been tested on the industrial scale, so I don't put a lot of faith in them. But there aren't even such supposed technologies for sequestering the CO2 produced from automobile tailpipes. So if you're trying to guess which is more likely to be a source you could get under control, you're better off with the power plant.


~ pax \ Ctein
[ please excuse any word salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
======================================
-- Ctein's online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital restorations http://photo-repair.com
======================================

Interesting that no one has mentioned Europe's sliding energy rates, and how effectively they might be applied elsewhere. In many European systems, the price of electricity changes hour-by-hour according to demand, and each home's electric meter downloads the rate data right through the power lines. Newer "smart" appliances can also tap into the data, and scale their energy usage during times of peak load. For example, when you hit "start" on your diswasher or laundry equipment, they might ask you if you'd prefer to wait until such-and-such a time, when the operating cost is lower. Thermostats can get in on the action too, dialing back the heat or A/C when energy is most expensive.

The advantage to this scheme is twofold: at first glance, it helps consumers save money. But it also balances the load on the power grid, enabling more efficient generation and distribution of electricity. Which in turn encourages a culture of conservation.

Hi Mike,

I don't know if your friends would want to make the up-front investment, but if they did, on warm sunny days they might not find it too hard to get hydrogen from water and then use it to make methane via the Sabatier process ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabatier_process ) With a generator set up for natural gas (which is primarily methane) they could be a little more energetically self sufficient (so long as one doesn't count the energy to make the equipment). I've been thinking about this as a way to run a gas stove top in an energetically self sustaining house.

As to why we're collectively behaving so poorly, I think it's because there largely is no mechanism built-in to the structure of how we're organized into groups that overcomes the natural tendancy to do the thing that is easiest and most immediately expedient when anonymously interacting with the group as a whole.

Developing groups with better structures is part three on my "unsolicited advice to the world" page, but it may be that humanity never will. In the Fall of 1988, I was paying my bills by working as a seafood processor in Akutan, AK during the king crab season. The job I was assigned was butchering the king crabs. My foreman told me to do it at a slow rate, and I had time to observe the behavior of the crabs. The each seemed to choose from among a handful of possible behaviors for dealing with the situation of being out of the water in a pile in a hopper, but, of course, none of them were successful. (I did toss the last crab of the season back in the water, but I don't know how well they make the round trip.) The realization came to me then that humanity might well be in a similar situation. Our palette of collective choices for our collective situation (even though we created it) might not contain any that are successful. I think that learning the fundamentals of forming groups that are capable (as groups) of and predisposed to moral behavior is imperative to our survival, but I don't know if that'll ever happen.

"Our palette of collective choices for our collective situation (even though we created it) might not contain any that are successful."

John,
I was doing some research for a futuristic novel, and read one analysis that put humanity's chances of surviving as a species till 2100 at 96%, till 2200 60%, and till 2300 15%. As to why small bands of hunter-gatherers would not survive the cataclysms he predicted, and live as we might have in the stone age, he pointed out that the small bands of the future would be living in a world with badly depleted resources, a shortage of fauna, significant pollution, no tribal traditions to stabilize group living, and the remaining presence in the world of guns. All that, he felt, would tend to drive the leftover human populations to below sustainable levels.

The most chilling thing I remember from the article is that, having been evolved to understand life in small groups, human beings instinctively think there is safety in numbers--but actually the opposite is true.

Of course, as always, the really annoying thing about the future is that none of US will be around to find out what happens. It's like reading a book with the last chapters torn out....

Mike J.

One problem with discussions of this nature is that it's almost impossible to get all the facts on the table so that we all converse from the same knowledge base.

I am witnessing a knee-jerk reaction against ethanol as a fuel because of its agricultural side-effects. I find it hard to believe that there could have been such a large swing to a corn crop, worldwide, in the span of a year or two. I have no knowledge in the field, but I am suspicious.

The US federal government has been subsidizing large corporate corn growers for decades. If they subsidized small independent organic farmers, they'd be labelled interfering BIG GUVMINT. We should take a lot of public debate with a grain of salt. Are we hearing intelligent debate or paid-for spin? Can we tell the difference anymore?

The now mindless and growing backlash against biofuels may throw out the baby with the bathwater. It may not make sense to try and replace oil with ethanol, but maybe sometimes it might. I don't know. But it is perfectly possible to make biodiesel from biomass, the wood chips, bark, and grass clippings that we now throw away. And you don't have to stop growing wheat to do that.

Our society seems to have an aversion to debating complex ideas. We want our choices to be easy, the discussions short. Why are we like this?

Wow, I didn't expect a response, but this is nice -- lots to think about here.

"Foodstuff-based biofuels have been shown to be a bad idea saved as a stopgap measure." Mike, this is what I meant by "discredited" -- that the diversion of land and crops toward biofuel production has been harmful both to the environment and to food supplies. I'm not closed off to biofuels altogether. I've read here and there about sea algae as a promising source of biomass to convert, which importantly wouldn't require land.

Re: propoganda, first I don't think the fossil fuel industry has much competition to fear from ethanol. Second, I don't watch the news on TV (i.e. Fox), but I do read from diverse journalism sources, including Newsweek, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and City Journal. I think that gives me a fair political spread, and I avoid reading only left-wing or only right-wing material.

Ctein, you're right that companies have in the past, and still today to an extent, dictate our life choices. It wasn't more than two years ago that I read a story in the paper about companies firing people who smoke cigarettes because they didn't want to cover their health insurance. In America today, we have drug testing at workplaces and at schools, and when you apply for a job, they can ask you to release your credit history so they can examine your lifestyle. It's deeply depressing to me. But in my corporate vs. government remark earlier, I was thinking more of rendered services rather than employment. I'm getting off topic now, so I'll leave it here. Regards

Dear Eric,

I was not as clear as I could have been about biofuels. I didn't want to go on too much at length, so I'm using that as my excuse. [ obscure grin ]

There are three different ways to get biofuel. The first is foodstuff-based sugar conversion. That's what was done first because it was quick and easy. The chemical reactions are simple and all you're doing is diverting existing production into a different channel. Nobody proposing this ever had any illusions that it would be the main solution -- it's a first-order calculation to figure out that we simply don't grow enough food to satisfy both human and fuel needs. But you have to start somewhere, and it's a good way to prove the technologies, and you also need time to get automobile engines designed so that they can use ethanol (it's not a combustion cycle problem, it has to do with ethanol being a solvent for some kinds of plastics and rubber--Arco got in big trouble for that many years ago when they slipped some ethanol into the mix to save money and didn't tell people).

The second way is to do sugar conversion on non-foodstuff crops. When you read about people growing other kinds of plants, especially on nonagricultural land, to produce ethanol, that's mostly what they're talking about. In theory (we'll see) this doesn't directly affect food supply or prices, but you can still use fundamentally similar production methods and channels. It may or may not improve the energy-balance equation.

The third stage goes by the fancy name of cellulosic conversion. Think cows. Biochemically you can break cellulose down into smaller sugars (it's just a long chain sugar molecule) and convert those to ethanol by the standard means. It's known chemistry; the trick is to make it fast and cheap and efficient enough to be useful as a fuel source. This is clearly a much better use of resources (you can use any plants and you use almost all of the plant instead of just the small sugars), so lots of people are working on it. It's not ready for prime time yet.

There's nothing profoundly wrong with your sources of news, but remember that they are usually tertiary sources. To find out what's really going on you have to go back to the original scientific journal pages. The articles you read in the popular press, especially the op-ed articles, are usually two steps removed. I think the misimpression that you've gotten has a lot to do with what Robert talked about, which is that we are inclined to like short discussions and simple answers. Which means when biofuels came up, the public didn't want to think about the nuances or the down sides, they just saw it as The Answer. And the natural counterreaction of discovering that it wasn't the answer is to believe that it's The Problem.

Much more of the increase in food costs is due to the increase in fuel prices than diversion of crops into fuel production. I have not yet read an analysis of what would happen to food prices if you suddenly stopped diverting food into ethanol production. If, and I emphasize IF, it drove up fuel prices very much it could actually make the cost of food worse.


~ pax \ Ctein
[ please excuse any word salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
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-- Ctein's online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital restorations http://photo-repair.com
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Dear John,

Something to be careful about with your gas stove project: methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. You have to ensure that your system doesn't vent more than a couple of percent of your production anywhere in the chain or you'll produce more global warming than you would if you just burnt coal.

This stuff is NEVER simple, sigh.


~ pax \ Ctein
[ please excuse any word salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
======================================
-- Ctein's online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital restorations http://photo-repair.com
======================================


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