Moving the American road from gasoline to electricity will require radical common sense. Until now the range of electric cars has paled compared to the gas guzzlers we’re use to. But that’s in the process of changing. Recent developments in nanotechnology are leading to new types of batteries which will have far greater capacity and far quicker recharge cycles than current products. AltairNano of Reno Nevada has created technology capable of producing devices which hold three times the charge of current lithium ion batteries, and which recharge in a matter of minutes while operating safely in a wide range of temperatures. Researchers at Stanford recently announced a nanowire technique capable of holding ten times the charge of current generation lithium ion devices. With such power packs, electric cars could eventually surpass gas powered cars in range.
But it will be a few years before these technologies become widespread and cheap. Right now it’s the cost of fancy batteries which makes electric cars so expensive. For a public used to driving 300 miles on a tank of gas, the limited range provided by current electric technology isn’t attractive. How can we overcome the obstacles presented by these limitations? Shai Agassi’s Better Place is a company working to find answers to these questions. One of their more interesting concepts is to establish Battery Exchange Stations for travelers on long journeys. You would drive to a Battery Exchange Station as if it were any gas station. But instead of "filling up" the station would use an automated procedure to swap out your spent battery, and replace it with a charged one. According to Better Place, you’d be on your way with a fresh battery in less than three minutes.
Battery exchange stations are a great idea, one capable of letting electric car drivers go on long journeys. But we should take the concept a step further by establishing government standards for Universal Road Batteries, or URBs. Such standards would be designed to let owners of different electric cars share common battery types. The idea is to promote the interoperability we now take for granted when fueling our cars. It doesn’t matter what kind of car you drive today: a two seat sports car, a sedan, SUV, or pickup truck. You can go from coast to coast knowing that in every state you can pull into a gas station where the pump will work with your car, and what comes out will get you on your way. So the URB isn’t a radical concept, but a way to give electric cars the same freedom to operate over long distances that gasoline provides us with now.
URBs would also help us make sense of renewables. Solar and wind are intermittent sources of energy. In power company lingo this type of energy is known as non-dispatchable, meaning that when the energy is available, the grid either needs to accept it, or it will be lost. This differs from traditional forms of energy like coal or oil which stick around until we decide to use them. So a key factor in adopting renewable energy sources is the ability to store that energy when it’s available. URBs would fulfill this objective in spades, and in the process provide a huge incentive to develop renewable energy. Millions of interchangeable electric car batteries would represent an energy sink of formidable proportions, one which would provide instant justification to tap the sun and wind to make electricity.
Unlike traditional forms of energy, much of this activity could take place on a decentralized basis by ordinary people. Having a widely practiced Universal Road Battery standard will help every family with a wind machine or solar roof panel power their own car. People with spare acreage in windy states will have an incentive to start their own wind farms, knowing they can "sell gas" to cross country electric car drivers in the form of URBs. And unlike current day gas station owners, these people won’t be passing most of the profit on to a giant corporation. That’s the thing about an electric-renewable economy which won’t be true for other forms of energy. Both the big and the small will get to play. We’ll have the best competition of all, the kind that lets you make something for yourself when someone else decides to overcharge for it! That’s supposed to be what capitalism is all about. It won’t hurt our democracy one bit either!
There is a great deal of debate today about how we should power our cars. Most recognize by now that the petro-diet we’ve been on is unsustainable in the long run. It’s hazardous to the environment, and given America’s dependence on foreign oil, it’s also impoverishing our country. But while gasoline may have lost it’s luster in the eyes of social planners, there are many champions of liquid fuel champing at the bit to take its place. I am here to argue that a major key to our energy future lies in spurning them all, and moving straight to electricity. It’s time to put an end to fuelishness!
We should look to abandon liquid fuels in general. For one thing, they’re socially regressive. They make us dependent on the powerful minority that delivers the fuel. We will all pay extra at the pump for empowering a new generation of fuel masters. Liquid fuels also require distribution systems which are enormously expensive to build and maintain. In the case of hydrogen, the existing system of refineries and gas stations is largely useless. A new system would have to be built at huge expense. Who would ultimately be asked to foot that bill? Ordinary customers, that’s who! Biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel pose fewer infrastructure problems. But all forms of liquid fuel require wasting huge amounts of energy simply to move the stuff around where people can use it. Then there’s the safety question. Is it really a good idea to mix fleets of gas trucks with normal passenger traffic? That’s an issue ethanol can only make worse, as it ignites more easily than gasoline.
Many who recognize the problems of hydrogen will argue for various biofuels. But biofuels have their own problems. Using corn to produce ethanol may be great for corn farmers, but it’s not going to solve our energy dilemma. Growing corn is itself a fossil fuel intensive process. So the net energy payback from ethanol isn’t good. According to Cornell University scientist David Pimentel, it takes 1.3 gallons of oil to produce one gallon of Ethanol! Ethanol also diverts land from food production and is already driving up food prices. Switch grass is a better alternative than corn, but with the potential exception of algae, all methods of making biofuel will require huge tracts of land to supply a significant portion of current energy demand.
Changes in land use inspired by biofuel initiatives are increasingly raising alarm with climate change activists. Brazilians have cut down huge sections of the Amazon rain forest to cultivate sugar cane for ethanol. Similarly, large areas of Asian peat lands are being converted to Palm oil plantations to make biofuels. Scientist are warning that these activities may release many times more carbon into the atmosphere than will be saved by the modest greenhouse gas improvement ethanol provides. Fixing our energy problem at the price of losing the war on global warming isn’t a road we can afford to take. Replacing gasoline with biofuels is not the answer to our problems.
As if these reasons weren’t enough, engines powered by liquid fuels are incapable of running efficiently. Heat Engines, which is what combustion engines are, are doomed by basic thermodynamic laws to be inefficient at normal temperatures. The only environment in which heat engines can be truly efficient is far too cold for humans to survive. Gasoline, ethanol, biodiesel, natural gas–it doesn’t matter. They are all doomed to be wasteful. In practice, combustion engine vehicles succeed in using less that a third of their fuel energy to produce motion. The rest goes out the radiator, tailpipe, or is bled off as waste heat. This is a matter of basic scientific law, and beyond debate. As a result no strategy aimed at achieving real energy efficiency can survive the widespread use of combustion engines. The same is true of any strategy which hopes to defeat global warming. If we are truly serious about fixing these problems, we need to end our reliance on the combustion engine. It’s that simple.
Electricity is the solution to our energy problem. The development of batteries capable of driving a generation of electric cars Americans can be happy with is well underway. Nanotechnology is in the process of radically extending the range of electric cars with batteries that can recharge in a few minutes. Unlike biofuels, electric cars don’t produce 80% of gasoline’s emissions: they have ZERO emissions! While heat engines are stuck well under 50% efficiency, a well maintained electric car can be 90% efficient. As Intel’s founder Andy Grove points out, electricity will also provide a unique flexibility in handling our energy problems. It can be produced from many sources, including solar and wind. It can be transmitted with virtually instant speed across the landscape. Unlike hydrogen or natural gas, we won’t have to completely rebuild our delivery system to accommodate electric cars. The national electric grid as it exists today is already capable of moving us in the right direction. Yes, the grid will need to be augmented as electric demand grows. But there’s no reason this can’t happen in an orderly fashion in the years to come. Current initiatives by the fledgling Obama administration are already beginning to lay the groundwork for the smart grid of the future.
To replace liquid fuels, the electric game plan will rely on a bridge technology called the hybrid car, a type of vehicle which combines a traditional gas engine with a rechargeable electric storage system. Hybrids have existed for some years, and are currently manufactured by several companies. Hybrids use several techniques to extend gas mileage, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the process. The plug-in hybrid, which owners can recharge at home, represents the next step, leading eventually to the all electric car. Over the coming years, this progression will provide a clear path traditional car manufacturers can take to help us evolve an electric future.
During this period there will be many temptations to extend our long reliance on liquid fuels. But it is critical that we not allow ourselves to be distracted from the goal of an electric future. In order to fend off catastrophic climate change, there can be no place for widespread use of liquid fuels. Either we stop dumping massive amounts of carbon dioxide in the sky, or we will pass on a sickened planet to our children. The electric car is the one way for us all to keep driving and avoid that outcome. The alternative is catastrophe.
As my friends will attest, I’ve complained about software for years. As a User Group founder, tech writer, trainer and PC go-to guy, the software experience has long preoccupied me. Recently, while walking a small cocker spaniel named Lily, the perfect metaphor for my software disenchantment sprang to mind.
It’s all about walking the dog. I’m fond of Lily, but she can be something of a twit. Her only job, as her owner puts it, is to be spoiled. Left to her own devices, she’d as soon stay indoors. But put a leash on her and she’s all for taking a walk. Unfortunately she’s not interested in walking with me, or whoever is holding the other end of her leash. Trying to cross the yard with her is a field exercise in attention deficit disorder. Her nose takes over and she flits erratically across the terrain, darting off in all directions, routinely crossing behind my back. The idea of heeling, of paying attention and following my lead, is the furthest thing from her mind.
Most software today works like this. It doesn’t care what we want, and doesn’t follow our lead. It doesn’t pay attention to our behavior in order to anticipate it, and make our lives easier. In short, like Lily, most software doesn’t know how to heel! Instead, we are constantly required to "pull the dog" in the direction we take to accomplish our work. In Lily’s case, it’s a hyperactive nose that proves distracting. But for many software developers, intellectual vanity plays that role. Coders are in love with the "Next Big Thing," with creating the "innovation" that will "rewire our world." Many are cleverness junkies seeking to impress themselves and each other with their latest act of deftness.
In the process they’ve lost sight of the fact that true service is humble. They offer a surfeit of visionary zeal when what the world needs instead is devotion to the mind of ordinary users. It’s the collective input of ordinary people that make networks sing, and by which great things may be accomplished in the long run. Let us not be dazzled by the Internet in this regard, as impressive and innovative as it doubtless is. We do well to recall that while the mist may shimmer, it owes it’s existence to the warm waters below.
Conventional wisdom had long held that the soils of the Amazon basin were poor in quality: loose in texture, burdened by too much aluminum, and depleted by torrential rainfall. But in 2001 scientists from several countries became aware of a mysterious substance the locals called Terra Preta, or Dark Earth. Extensive tracts of land in the heart of the Amazon were blessed with rich dark soil where logic suggested none should exist. This soil was not only remarkably fertile, but had endured despite centuries of human inactivity, the result of the local culture’s disruption by early European explorers. For the past eight years scientists have struggled to understand the Black Magic behind these apparent contradictions.
A consensus has emerged about the magic of Terra Preta focused on Biochar, an organic charcoal created with a low oxygen fire which merely chars vegetable matter, rather than burn it completely. While no one has been able to duplicate Terra Preta exactly, it now seems clear that adding biochar to the soil was the key ingredient in its formation. The good news is that we don’t need the precise formula for Terra Preta to get tremendous benefits from biochar. Properly applied, biochar is capable of doubling, even tripling, the fertility of most soils. It also reduces the need for chemical fertilizers by 75%, and reduces greenhouse gases emissions of the land it’s used on. Even better, biochar is the gift that keeps on giving. Unlike fertilizer, it persists in the soil for hundreds, even thousands of years. In the process it removes carbon from the atmosphere. As a result climate change activists are starting to embrace biochar as a potent way to fight global warming.
You too can use biochar to improve your garden this spring! The Gardening With Biochar FAQ web site is filled with helpful information, and is a great place to start. For simple ways to make biochar in the back yard with a steel barrel, check out the Official Biochar Tutorial Video or this Making Charcoal page. An overview of basic techniques to create biochar can also be found at Simple Technologies For Charcoal Making, an on-line document produced by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.
(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 02.05.09)
This is truly revolutionary stuff, in the original sense of the word. It’s a short video about a project led by Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institute, a project who’s objective seemed impossibly difficult: to make one of the most desolate places on earth, a salt encrusted piece of desert near the Dead Sea, bloom with new life. To grasp what these people have done is to understand that even “insurmountable” problems, like global warming or peace in the middle east, can be solved by working with nature to make the land come alive. President Obama, Secretary Clinton, Senator Mitchell: Are you listening?
”We could regreen the middle east. We could regreen any desert, and desalt it at the same time. You can fix all the world’s problems in a garden. . . Most people today don’t actually know that, and that makes most people very insecure.”
(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 01.28.09)
We all know the reasons for action: Cities clogged by chronic traffic congestion; airborne pollutants which harm the health of millions; greenhouse gas exhaust which promotes ominous climate change. The need to develop new forms of mass transit to help transform our car-crazy world is clear. What’s not so clear is what form such action should take. Europe and Japan have made significant strides developing high speed rail systems. But to date not much has been done in the United States to bring mass transit into the 21st century. With the advent of the Obama administration, however, there is fresh cause to hope that long overdue action is coming. Clearly many have been nursing forward looking visions of what we might do, as this Comparison Matrix of Ready and Emerging Innovative Transportation Technologies developed at the University of Washington shows.
America’s transportation future should be based on phasing out internal combustion engines in favor of all electric cars, a subject I’ll deal with in greater length elsewhere. Going electric will make cars lighter in general, making passengers more vulnerable to collisions with heavy vehicles. For the sake of passenger safety, as well as overall energy efficiency, we should move most long haul trucking off our highways and back to trains. Accomplishing this goal should be the focus in updating our existing railroad system, not moving people around at high speeds. We need to update existing trains as a freight distribution system which will relieve highways of much of heavy freight they now carry. Doing so will not only make travel safer for passenger traffic, it will save energy and lower stress on our roadways.
Adopting the European approach to high speed trains would be a mistake for the United States. The expense required to install ground based high speed train service for a country as large as the US will be astronomical. People here also need to go faster than Europeans simply because the US is a much bigger place. But as the speed of ground based traffic rises, the potential for mayhem, mischief, and disaster rises with it. Moving people around on a national basis at speeds appropriate to the size of the US should cause us to move high speed transit off the ground, if only to reduce potential disasters.
ATI’s (Airtrain Inc.) Advance Guideway System is an approach with significant advantages over most high speed rail schemes. ATI’s current design uses a vehicle which carries 114 people hung from an overhead guide rail. Two modes of propulsions are used. At lower speeds drive wheels grasp the guide rail to push the vehicle along quietly. At higher speeds ducted thrust fans take over. Vehicles are reversible, so there is no need for two tracks. They can also be linked in groups to form multi car trains. Because the guide way is suspended from mounts, vehicles don’t interfere with local ground traffic and can use existing rights of ways. The system is also capable of climbing 15% grades, eliminating the need to tunnel through mountains. Both propulsion methods use electricity supplied by the guide rail. So no fossil fuel or combustion is involved.
The key to ATI’s system is dual propulsion. This is a system which acts as a subway or light commuter rail in town, and a like a propeller airplane when going cross country. Like airplanes, ATI’s vehicles pitch and roll when going around curves. The initial system is rated to operate at 150 miles per hour. But the company is already working on a 250 mph system, and is committed to providing 300. Since propeller airplanes can operate efficiently up to 350 mph, further headroom may be possible in the years ahead. These are speeds we are unlikely to see from ground based trains, and at which it would be inadvisable to operate ground traffic, even if it were possible.
A national network based on ATI’s system would be cheaper and faster to build than high speed ground trains. With enough time and development a grid built on this technology could displace national jet flights for all but the longest routes and most demanding travelers. Eventually express trains of this type could go coast to coast in ten hours. You would be able to take a sleeper car in New York, and wake up in Los Angeles. Advanced Guideway routes would also serve as superior form of urban commuter rail, allowing workers who live much greater distances from downtown retain the ability to commute into the city each day.
Of course one reason Why People Don’t Use Mass Transit services is the need to get around a distant town once they arrive. If someone feels they’ll need a car once they arrive in a city, they might as well just drive there to start with! This brings us to the other end of the national grid scale: the need locals and visitors alike have to simply get around town. Many schemes are being floated to solve this problem, but most will required extensive and expensive changes in how cities work. Rather than futuristic notions of fleets of small ownerless vehicles, or cars that can ride on rail lines, we might be better served by resurrecting an old Jazz Age phenomena called the Jitney, or Share Taxi.
IGT Taxibus is a British firm which presents a compelling scheme for what might be called Jitney service for the 21st century. The IGT system is composed of four elements: a fleet of minibuses to move people around, cell phone networks to order rides and coordinate payments, GPS to guide travel routes, and computer networking to coordinate fleets with maximum efficiency. Taxibuses provide door to door service, and IGT claims an average wait-time of only three minutes between ordering a ride, and being picked up. Fares would be automatically handled on cell phones, eliminating the token taking and exact change problems typical of city buses. IGT claims that Taxibus travel times will be much closer to a car or taxi than a city bus, especially as a Taxibus delivers riders directly to their destinations without the need to park a car on arrival.
IGT’s analysis suggests that the biggest benefit will be the elimination of six cars from city streets for every working Taxibus. For the scheme to work properly large fleets of Taxibuses are necessary to provide the quick response times IGT projects. But if IGT’s analysis is even close to being right, the benefit of deploying a large fleet of Taxibuses in big cities would be immense. A huge number of cars would be taken off the roads, resulting not only in big energy savings, but significant reductions in urban congestion and exhaust emissions. Furthermore, any city served by a large Taxibus fleet would give travelers added reason to ride high speed transit to town, rather than driving a car there. If you know cheap Taxibuses are available to ferry you door to door around town on short notice, there will be little reason to drive your car into the city to start with.
The combined strategies embodied by ATI’s Advanced Guideway System and IGT’s Taxibus can form a rich synergy capable of putting a major dent in America’s overwhelming traffic load. Who will want to drive a car 1000 miles when it’s possible to hop an Air train that moves at 300 miles per hour? Why would you need to drive your car to a distant city swarming with Taxibuses ready to provide quick door-to-door service? Yes, it will doubtless cost a great deal to create an Advanced Guideway network that covers the entire country, but not nearly as much, and to much better effect, than a ground based high speed rail system.
More importantly, it will cost us even more in the long run to do nothing. America needs to look up and embrace its future. It can do so by bringing the equivalent of flight down to the people. On the other hand, we need a way to unsnarl our complicated cities which won’t require the immense cost of retrofitting them with futuristic urban schemes. The indignity and inefficiency of city buses has soured most Americans on the prospect of mass transit. Taxibus fleets deployed in large numbers could remedy this, and in the process take huge numbers of cars off the roads where it matters most: from the heart of downtown.
(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 01.26.09)
Americans burn millions of barrels of oil to light up the sky each night. This represents a huge burden, not only in terms of energy outlay, but for the constant river of equipment, time, and effort needed to keep the process going. Street lighting also adds significantly to our national health care bill. Normal sleep behavior in humans is easily disturbed by artificial light, and there’s substantial cause to think it complicates our health by interfering with normal sleep patterns.
LED (Light Emitting Diode) is an emerging lighting technology which offers new ways to cope with these problems. In its early years LEDs were only capable of emitting specific colors, notably Red and Green. But blue LEDs have recently become available in large numbers, and with them comes the prospect of using LEDs to create light of any color. Since the 1960’s the efficiency and light output of LED technology has been doubling every thirty-six months. As a result LEDs have become an order of magnitude more efficient than incandescent bulbs, and are starting to eclipse fluorescents as well. Other key advantages of LEDs include a much longer life span, low heat emissions, and superior susceptibility to complex computer control. LEDs are virtually instant-on devices which can be cycled on/off many times more often than other forms of lighting. They are also much more directional than normal lights, a fact which can be used to both increase efficiency and lower light pollution. Last, but not least, LEDs fail gradually by slowly growing dim, in stark contrast to the abrupt failure of incandescent bulbs.
All these advantages add up to a tremendous opportunity for America to save energy and fight global warming. A 2008 white paper funded by the Ford Foundation found that if the our ten largest metropolitan areas convert to more efficient lighting, CO2 emissions will be cut by 1.2 million tons a year, the amount produced by 212,000 cars! The long life of LEDs would also save money by slowing the rate at which municipalities need to buy and install replacement lights.
But LEDs may make a radical new kind of economy possible, one based on not bothering to light empty streets where no one is stirring! It has been our habit to light millions of empty streets each night all across America, streets which for long stretches of time are completely devoid of traffic, where no one is even awake enough to know if lights are on! This is a colossal waste of energy which LEDs are ideally suited to put an end to. Equipping LED street lights with motion sensor detectors will let us turn lights on only when there are actually people there to see and use them. LEDs can accomplish this because unlike incandescent lights they can power up/down a huge number of times without breaking, and unlike florescent lights they turn on instantaneously.
Under this scenario a street would light up before you as you drove or walked down it, only to fade back into darkness when no traffic is present. Some might object this would lead to a “strobe light” effect all over town. But LEDs are ideally suited for sophisticated network control which could provide many options. One might be to simply dim lights slowly on streets with little or no traffic, instead of shutting them off completely. Programming for a new generation of street lights could be split between the local intelligence of individual lights designed to react to real-time traffic, and a central control center which could override their behavior with its own programming. Such systems might consist of street lights with flash memory software which could be updated from a central office. This would allow the programmed behavior of an entire municipal lighting system to be updated on the fly without needing to send workmen into the streets.
What’s needed at this point is a grand experiment, one designed to test these possibilities in the interest of arriving at an optimal solution, one which balances our desire to conserve energy while providing nighttime illumination people find useful and comfortable. Only by conducting such an experiment can we learn what will work best. I also suggest that this needs to be a national experiment sponsored by the federal government. If we are to move on this into the 21st century as a people, it won’t do for each town to have their own way of programming street lights. However inefficient our current way of lighting up the night may be, it has the advantage of being predictable. Regardless of the state or city we’re in, we know what to expect from street lights. But as with all systems which contain significant software, this new technology will be capable of surprising us with unexpected behavior. Such surprises can be good or bad. To make sure it’s the former, we need to coordinate our efforts to create a standard way to use this new potential, one tested by real experience.
(Originally posted by R. Guenette 01.10.09)
As a guy who usually does his best thinking after sundown, I’ve sometimes felt defensive in the face of a culture which regards rising early as key to productivity, right thinking, even Godliness. But while jumping out of bed early may be convenient to collective business agendas, there’s a downside to making everyone get up near dawn. Science suggests that forcing people out of their natural rhythm injures their health, and the nation in general seems to be suffering an epidemic of sleep disorder. Recent evidence also suggests that rising early is more worm than bird when educating teenagers. As a group teens need more sleep than adults, a fact which doubtless frustrates those who get them up early, only to try teaching them while they’re half asleep!
Of course it’s only natural that most people are active while the sun shines. Until the industrial age most of us were precluded by darkness from doing much after sunset. But some variability in circadian rhythm seems likely in a large population. I’ve sometimes wondered how humanity may have benefited, in both evolutionary and historical terms, from individuals who are active at night. One clue may be gleaned from the relatively bad color perception of mammals, the structure of whose eyes tends to favor monochromatic rod cells. Such cells provide excellent peripheral vision and motion detection in low light, suggesting a time when mammals needed such skills to avoid nocturnal predators. Similarly, guarding a town, city, or citadel with individuals who are alert at night would prove very useful against sudden attack at exactly the time most people were asleep and vulnerable. But being a late riser may have additional benefits, as I learned last night from this Wired Magazine article:
Artists, writers, and coders typically fire on all cylinders by crashing near dawn and awakening at the crack of noon. In one study, “evening people” almost universally slam-dunked a standardized creativity test. Their early-bird brethren struggled for passing scores.
(Originally posted by R.Guenette on 01.02.09 )
Here’s a recent quote from Dr. Steven Martin, Chief Scientist behind the Kurosawa Natural Medicine Blog, which speaks to a key facet of our national health malaise. This is the critical perspective of a PhD in Immunology who works as a scientific consultant to law firms. It speaks about what is, in effect, the systematically poisoning of the American people with bad diet. Small wonder the cost of health care and health insurance have skyrocketed!
Recently, CNN produced a great segment on the poor diet of Americans. They cited American Heart Association studies which showed that Americans consume 10% of their calories from soybean oil. If you look on a package of almost anything in a store, it contains hydrogenated soy oil. This is an omega six oil which is extremely unhealthy. The high linoleic fatty acids present in soy, corn, and safflower oils is converted to arachidonic acid in the body. Arachidonic acid is the precursor to prostaglandins and leukotrienes.
We already know that the prostaglandin PGE2 is immunosuppressive in addition to stimulating the growth and survival of cancer cells. But this is only part of the story. The enzyme 5-lipoxygenase produces a leukotriene called 5-HETE which has been linked to cancer growth of all kinds. In a culture dish, 5-HETE will stimulate the growth of cancer cells all by itself.
(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 12.06.08)
As the sun sets on the cheap oil era, the need to focus on alternatives to fossil fuels has become increasingly apparent. During this period the public has been offered some persistent misconceptions about the nature of the problem, and what we should do to solve it. In general we tend to oversimplify the nature of the challenge we’re facing, identifying it merely as the need to come up with new sources of fuel.
What’s really going is much more profound than running out of gas–it’s a crisis of sustainability, a test of our overall way of life. The consequences of the “limitless growth” model that’s driven industrial economies for the last century is swiftly catching up with us. We’re overproducing and overcomsuming ourselves into oblivion. Clinging to the old model can only result in a series of destructive resource wars and hasten the pace of catastrophic climate change. Throwaway culture is no longer a luxury we can afford. If we fail to break our old economic habits it will be “our world” that will be thrown out! That process is already underway, and gaining momentum.
Here is a quick checklist of popular misconceptions about the energy crisis:
The energy crisis is a separate problem unto itself. – It isn’t! The energy crisis is bound up with larger questions about the sustainability of our prevailing growth model of economic activity. We need to recognize that our headlong consumption of fossil fuel is overheating the planet. If we want society to endure for the long term we need to question the cancerous logic of limitless growth, and learn to live within our means. This is especially true for the most prolific overconsumers on the planet: Americans!
The earth is running out of oil, and fossil fuel in general. – It’s not! Huge reservoirs of fossil fuels exist, enough to meet current levels of demand for many decades to come. There are enormous reserves in the form of coal, tar sands, and methane hydrate deposits. What is coming to an end is the supply of cheap fossil fuel. We can get at the remaining reserves of fossil fuel, but doing so will be increasingly expensive and have unpleasant consequences.
Lack of fuel is the most pressing limit posed by this energy crisis. – Wrong! There is plenty of material to produce fuel from, if we’re willing to pay the price. The most pressing limit we face concerning energy use is the amount of carbon we can dump into the atmosphere! Current economic activity is already helping to melt Greenland’s ice pack. The process has been underway for years and is accelerating. As Greenland’s ice goes, it will raise global sea levels by twenty feet. The homes of over half the human race will be inundated in the process. You do the math!
The problem can be fixed by finding more fuel to meet demand. – It can’t! Part of the problem is we’re consuming too much energy to maintain climatic stability. In the case of Americans the per capita rate of consumption is far too high. It makes no sense to try and sustain our way of life without asking ourselves if that way of life is sustainable to start with. The earth isn’t going to adapt itself to our habits. Instead we need to adapt our habits to our home in space. We must ask ourselves hard questions about the kinds of activity we can reasonably expect to sustain over the long haul here on planet Earth.
The Hydrogen Economy will solve our problems. – It won’t! Elemental hydrogen isn’t a source of energy. Unlike oil it doesn’t occur naturally but has be “manufactured” instead. In effect hydrogen is a form of energy storage, not a fuel source. It can’t help us replace dwindling oil supplies.
Ethanol can be used to replace gasoline. – Not going to happen! Like hydrogen, ethanol isn’t a fuel source, but a form of energy storage. Besides, don’t we need the corn ethanol is made from to feed people? Can we morally justify starving people to produce fuel? Finally, the corporate agriculture which produces the corn ethanol is derived from is itself hugely dependent on fossil fuels.
Renewable energy can’t solve the energy crisis. – This is one of two lies large corporations promote about renewable energy. The truth is that renewable energy can be most effectively pursued as a set of decentralized grassroots solutions by ordinary citizens. But that’s a path which will break down the centralized control big energy and utility companies have over their customers. So while they pay lip service to renewable energy sources they package the concept as something complicated that needs further study, something that’s beyond the reach of regular people. This leads us to lie number two. . .
Renewable energy solutions are large and complex. – Big corporations visualize energy solutions as large highly centralized projects because it mirrors their desire to maintain centralized economic control. So corporations tends to think of a solar solution as something that looks like this, or a wind solution that look like this. These kinds of projects are clearly too expensive for ordinary people to participate in. To the extent that we accept such ideas we’ll be turned off to the notion of solving the energy crisis for ourselves, one household at a time. Of course this is exactly what big companies want.
What we need is the right fuel to replace gasoline. – This is another corporate friendly falsehood. The reason solutions like hydrogen and ethanol get a lot of attention in the press is that they maintain the current paradigm: energy needed to drive our cars can only be produced by large corporations using highly centralized production and distribution systems to deliver fuel. The problem is that the existing corporate system has been built on a “found object”–vast reservoirs of cheap oil pumped out of the ground at low cost. But unlike oil neither hydrogen nor ethanol is an energy source. You have to consume other energy sources to produce them. So it’s very unlikely hydrogen or ethanol will ever drive the creation of another centralized system like the one cheap oil gave rise to. The real solution is to bypass fuel altogether, and go straight to electricity. Electricity is an ideal form of energy for transportation. This fact has been repeatedly demonstrated, most recently by a car produced by Tesla Motors. What they’ve produced isn’t your Dad’s electric car–it does zero to sixty in four seconds!
In a future post I will address how we can really solve the energy crisis, and wean America off foreign oil in one generation.
(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 09.11.06)