Monday, April 28, 2008


One aspect of old-timey farming I haven't been able to get into is old-timey reading. The farmhouse has bookshelves lined with dusty tomes (tombs, really) on every imaginable farming discipline, most published decades ago.

During coffee breaks of the past week, I noticed Intern Tom was eagerly devouring the pages of an old, thick book devoted entirely to the topic of feeding horses. That guy's going to be a great farmer. Meanwhile, I was flipping through the latest issues of Wired and Popular Mechanics, which I smuggled into the nineteenth century as contraband.

For some people it's the nutrition of horses, for others it's American Idol, but the subject I've been crushing on these past months is the technology of alternative energy. I think energy, like food, is one of the elemental human commodities. The acquisition, production, and use of energy is again and again at the core of big issues, no matter what point in history you're looking at.

Big changes to the way we make and consume energy are now looming because of peak oil and global warming. I'm endlessly interested to read the latest article that claims to know what's going to happen next, or what new technology will be the one to rise up and save us. I find it all fascinating, just as good as following the Yankees.

Plus, this stuff is important. The ripple effects of our energy dilemma are already starting to crash on distant shores. Skyrocketing food prices around the world – there have been riots because of them from Haiti to Bangladesh – are largely attributable to American farmers growing more corn for ethanol fuel and less crops for food. Another contributing factor to the food crisis is recent droughts around the world, which many scientists say are made worse by global climate change, which, in turn, is largely caused by the release of carbon in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. It's all connected in its own weird, complicated way.

In my ongoing, informal survey of the American media as it writes about alternative energy technologies, I've read many articles that seem pretty impressed by one particular technology, and then the next week another, and then the next week another. I think the best writers point out that it will probably be a cocktail of technologies that will help us produce renewable energy in the near future, and that no technology has yet seen the big, game-changing breakthrough needed to compete on cost with coal and oil.

More recently, though, I've noticed a few large trends -- adjustments in the conventional thinking of the amorphous, floating blob that is the collective consciousness of the people who write about renewable energy for major publications:

- Corn ethanol is on the outs. Many writers now seem to be in on to the idea that corn as fuel does more harm everywhere than good.

- Hydrogen cars vs. electric cars used to be a debate, but now most writers seem to have come to the understanding that hydrogen is a long way off. Many articles in the past year or so have touted plug-in hybrid vehicles as shaping up to be a really good near-term solution to our transportation needs. Even though these vehicles haven't even arrived yet, they're already starting to feel like old news.

- Newest on the mass media's radar seems to be solar thermal power. In just the past two months or so, it seems to me that this technology has gone from being considered just another good idea to maybe THE great idea that will actually help us wean off coal.

Time magazine references it on page 44 this week, and here's an article from which comes close to declaring the world saved:

- For other clues on what might be the next big thing, I simply look at whatever Google has embraced. They're already supporting solar thermal, which has just recently gone mass media mainstream, but you might have a few second left to get in early of high-altitude wind energy:


Anonymous said...

At this point, the hydrogen car is really another form of electric car, as electricity is used to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.

I don't think we are going to get anywhere without reducing the amount of energy we use drastically.

Farmer Rob
Recovering Rocket Scientist

Dani said...

Regarding "it's all connected": yes! yes! yes!

I'm kinda grateful for the recent spike in food and oil prices (I'll be blogging about this more extensively tomorrow). I hope it's convincing people to examine the convoluted relationships on which our world is premised, and how much Life As We Know It depends on the status quo. And if there is one thing that's for certain: the world in fifty years will not look anything like the world today. Will this big, global system be flexible enough to respond peacefully to the changes? I don't know. But I think one of the big arguments for eating local is to keep the system that sustains us small and flexible. I don't want to rely on supply chains that criss-cross the world to produce my food; how will I get the food if those supply chains shift? I want to know that I could bike to the farm that feeds me, if I needed to.

Anonymous said...

Energy conservation is also a major factor to consider. Think of all the waste day and night. Is it really necessary to light up all the skyscrapers and other unused office space around the country at night? Does it make any sense at all to drive a vehicle that doesn't get at least 40 mpg? Do families need to run multiple computers, TV's, and the whole slew of other enrgy wasting gadgets day and night just for convenience? The list goes on and on. Maybe part of the solution would be to ration energy use.