One of the major drags on my soul is the energy situation. The thermodynamics of our economy are not sustainable, and we're getting to the point where the primary engines of our wealth are going to quite literally run out of gas. There's a terrible poverty of ideas within the establishment when it comes to addressing this or any other problem, and it's been really getting me down lately. But today I found a few things that brightened my mood considerably. First a little background.
Oil is not going to get cheaper. This will completely undermine our way of life and lead to a massive global depression unless we either learn to get by with less energy or find new sources. We're not getting by with less or even the same amount of energy. While we could do this if we had the will in America, the developing world (in particular India and China) are going to keep increasing their energy consumption rapidly until either they've brought 40 to 50% of their population out of serfdom or there's a massive catastrophy. So new sources of energy must be found.
We need to look seriously at our energy policies with an eye towards real solutions that can change things in the next few decades. The "hydrogen economy" is not a real answer, nor is any other proposal that doesn't work with the infrastructure we have.
Which is what? Cars are not going away. Too much has been invested in sprawling development. This is something that needs to change -- whether it's the New Urbanism or something else -- but we have to acknowledge the physical reality that exists. People need to drive in order to work and to acquire food, to get children to/from school, and so on. While I think revitalizing the notion of "urban planning" (as we're doing really well in some places) and pushing public transportation and alternatives like biking are important, we have to recognize that any solution which tries to remove the automobile from the center of American life in less than 50 years is unrealistic.
So we have all these vehicles and the repair infrastructure to support them, as well as a massive system for distributing liquid fuel. An increasingly popular answer given this is to migrate to hybrid electric engines -- which take advantage of more of our existing repair infrastructure than fuel cells, which require very different technical knowledge to maintain -- and use BioDiesel as a fuel source.
It sounds nice, but I've been very suspicious of the scalability. Most of the projects to create BioDiesel use an existing commercial food crop -- usually soybeans -- to extract the oils needed to make fuel. This is not a good option because those crops are already net-loosers of petroleum energy in current production, largely because of fertilizers. So unless you have a plan to get ADM to convert it's whole operation to organic and also shut down the existing business lines which use soya, we're not getting enough biodiesel to power America from there.
Here's a quick aside. When this topic comes up, do not, I repeat not, suggest hemp. I like that plant as much as the next guy, but for fairly obvious reasons it's not going to happen, ok? It's also not a great producer for BioDiesel. For paper and other fibers, yes, but it's not very rich in oils, which is what you need.
However, today I cought a link to a really encouraging article about using Algae as source biomass for BioDiesel. This is the first time I've seen someone make an effort to think about what it would take to produce enough fuel to meet our energy needs nationwide. It's much more of a thought-experiment than a research piece, but it seems rather conservative in its estimations. It gave me some new hope that solutions exist.
Essentially we can take advantage of sewage and agricultural runoff (aka shit) to grow species of algae which are oil-rich, then use the algae to make BioDiesel. It seems like the kind of system that could work. It doesn't require reconfiguring an existing industry and the major infrastructure needed is just shallow ponds which can capture nitrogen-rich waste. And refineries. There's that. But it seems like a plausible answer both scientifically, economically and politically.
Incidentally, I cought the link from the discussion in this Kos post from Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana, talking about his idea for converting coal directly into liquid fuel, which is another very interesting option. An important aspect of tis "SynFuel" idea is that it will work in non-diesel engines, which are what most regular people drive. While some of what he says sounds too good to be true, the thrust of things is that SynFuel will release less CO2 compared to gasoline because much of the carbon can be "sequestered" (e.g. diverted into solid or liquid form) in the process of refining. While you still have to deal with this sequestered carbon, better to bury it than release it into the atmosphere. Even at double the cost figure he quotes ($35 a barrel) this is a step forward from where we are.
As the Apollo Alliance has been saying for a while (and not getting any traction... switch gears guys! seize the day!) one of the major benefits of reconfiguring our energy policy is not just to secure the fuel to run our economy, but to make the production of that fuel something that working Americans benefit from again. As it stands, nearly $200B a year leaves the us to pay for crude oil, not to mention the cost of the military entanglements this brings. Personally I'd be happy to let Red China prop up the Saudis by buying their oil. Let's re-invest those $200B here at home. This would also provide us with the geopolitical mobility to pull our troops out of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East because we wouldn't need to enforce the kind of stagnant status quo to protect our energy lifeline.
This is a big idea. It's a call for progressive reform based not on some moral notion of social justice, but quite literally on our future survival. It's something I think people will respond well to (90% percent of people are worried about foreign oil and want the government to take action) if we really get serious and innovative. I'm really glad to see Schweitzer putting this on the radar. He's one of a new generation of political leaders who are actually concerned with good government and willing to think outside the box. He's also miles ahead of Establishment Democrats in how to connect to the American people; reminiscent of my man Howard Dean in those respects, really.
I find my mind returning again and again to energy as a touchstone issue. So I'm going to work on it. This is how I do. It's part of what I want to write about: how it can be. Unless we popularize these ideas and this scale of pragmatic thinking, the small-minded and risk-averse business-as-usual mindset will prevail.