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GP 10 October 2007: Natural Energy: They Said It Couldn’t Be Done

Somebody said that it couldn't be done,
But she with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but she would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till she tried.

So she buckled right in with a trace of a grin
On her face.  If she worried she hid it.
She started to sing as she tackled the thing,
That couldn't be done and she did it.

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you'll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it”
But she took off her coat and she took of her hat,
And the first thing we knew she’d begun it.

                     - “It Couldn’t Be Done,” by Edgar A Guest (1881-1959)

Benji’s Retort.   Way back in the 20th century, up on the East Side of New York, when parties did not have to be glitzy, and whole families still got together, we ran out to an early party at the Lenzes where food was dominant, and alcohol was an afterthought.  Halfway through the event, our hostess Margaret appeared in the room, aglow with smiles, to report on her young son Benji.  He had dragged her off to the bathroom, and she assumed that he needed some help with his clothing.  Not so.  He pointed instead to the toilet bowl, full of his doings, and proudly exclaimed, “They said it couldn’t be done.”  He had pressed into service an advertising slogan of the day, which he had heard on radio and TV, to brag about his accomplishment.

His was still the America of spectacular achievement, when the unbelievable could come to pass.  The advert people celebrated new products of many sorts with this very slogan—“They said it couldn’t be done.”  We thought then that we could overcome any obstacles to progress.

Oil and Neutrons.  In the meanwhile, we have now become older, Johnny-one-notes.  Doctrinal.   Scared of our shadows.  Scientists, politicians, theologians, academics, and journalists have become very certain about what will never happen and about how we have to deal in the future with very limited options.  Certainly this kind of thinking characterizes everything about the energy debate—on the Left and the Right.  Carbons—basically oil and coal—have given us energy galore in the past, with some occasional help from rushing water.  The carbons are running out, they say, so our only hope now is nuclear fission and fusion.  Forget about solar, wave, wind, or biofuels.  They’re a drop in the energy bucket and always will be.

Even very bright and flexible minds, such as Richard Rhodes who wrote a Pulitzer about the making of the atomic bomb, pretty much have staked their egos on the idea that alternative power will never happen.  In January/February 2000, Rhodes and Dennis Beller wrote about “The Need for Nuclear Power” in Foreign Affairs, more than convinced it was the ticket out of dirty power and poor-country energy shortages. Rhodes is not a lightweight, and one has to listen to him. Maybe there is only one energy answer for us.

Vox Populi. The world is turning a deaf ear to such men in the know.  The people here in the United States and all around the globe have failed to listen to the naysayers, and are ploughing ahead along all the energy paths that the experts deem to be blind alleys.  Like it or not—and the experts don’t—alternate energy is happening everywhere you turn.  We reviewed some of this ferment in “Electric Power and Staying Power.”  However, to make a bad pun, we only touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of the explosion of things that are happening in power that take direct advantage of the energy nature sends our way.  It’s a time when leaders are better advised to find out where people are going—and to lead them there.

Solar Power.  You can find a few items about energy and the sun at “Solar Power Revisited.”  Germany and Japan have seized the lead in this field, although the U.S. is coming on fast.  Consumer demand has now gotten so large that the gaiting factor in solar expansion is equipment availability, solar panel production coming up short.  Interestingly, a Chinese tycoon has become a huge force in solar power: Shi Zhengrong of Wuxi is churning out equipment, having of necessity designed photovoltaic arrays that take out some of the costs built into Western units.  His Suntech Power Holdings is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.  While doomsayers point daily to the huge environmental problems that China poses for the globe, Shi is just one symbol of the fact that China is beginning to work overtime to get its problems under control.  They will not be tamed by the time the Olympics arrive, but alternate power will grow there by leaps and bounds over the next 10 years. Meanwhile, Mr. Shi has become one of China’s richest men.

Wind Power.  Our favorite alternate energy source is wind power, because its costs are close to competitive with ordinary electric generation.  It first got wind in its sails in the United States which has a habit of initiating new things, but not staying the course.  The first equipment here was poorly engineered and uneconomic.  But European makers such as Vestas got serious, and got it right.  Today Denmark generates about 20% of its energy from the wind.  We’re making progress in the U.S. even if self-interested Senators such as Ted Kennedy are slowing it down, blocking wind projects in Nantucket Bay that might mar the view of affluents in vacation spots.  In “Wind Power,” you will discover that wind power is breaking out all over.  For instance, Tulsi Tanti’s Suzlon Energy has made him India’s seventh richest man.  It is a major producer of wind-turbine generators, and wind power now apparently accounts for 3-4% of India’s generating capacity.

Biofuels.  Our staff has long ignored ethanol, feeling that it was little more than a scam promoted by the agricultural commodity companies that have made a packet out of the rising price of corn.  It should have given us some unease that Brazil was running a goodly number of its cars on ethanol, doing away with the foreign exchange drain imposed by imported oil.  Our big oil companies deftly pointed to the various subsidies afforded ethanol producers, claiming that it was a totally uneconomic energy source for the nation.  Of course, they are loathe to point out that the tax code is riddled with subsidies for petroleum.  We were simply wrong to ignore ethanol: we fell into herd thinking.

National Geographic suggests in “Green Dreams” (October 2007, pp. 38-59) that a few more technical leaps may make ethanol into our best bet of all, both economically and environmentally.  But biofuel covers a range of plant derived fuels: corn ethanol (heavily U.S.), cane ethanol (heavily Brazil), biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol, and algae.  It’s the latter two, where there is yet no production, that offer the most excitement.  Switchgrasses for cellulosic ethanol grow fast, require less manmade inputs, and generate 91% less greenhouse gases than gasoline.  “Each acre of algae theoretically can churn out more than 5,000 gallons of biofuel each year.”  In other words, the cellulose and algae alternatives  promise to be cost efficient and green at the same time.  You can read more about “The Switchgrass Solution,” in Wired, October 2007, pp. 158-171.

Vinod Khosla.  To listen to Vinod Khosla is to believe cellulosic ethanol is just around the corner.  In “My Big Biofuels Bet” (Wired, October 2006, pp. 136-148), he lays low all the bad things that have been said about the economics of ethanol and says that we can replace our gasoline with biomass energy in 25 years.  He was a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and a Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers partner.  “A company called E3 Biofuels is about to fire up the most energy-efficient ethanol facility in the country: a $75 million state-of-the-art biorefinery and feedlot capable of producing 25 million gallons of ethanol a year.”  “Most ethanol facilities can produce their fuel for about $1 a gallon—almost half the production cost of gasoline.”

UnBelievers.  Our country is built on its belief in the future.  Not on the idea that our options are winding down.  William James, our great and original philosopher, found pure delight in the future—thinking it rife with possibilities and open to adventure.  Today, on all sorts of topics, ideologists have seized the stage, hoarsely shouting, “There’s one way; my way.”  It is the duty of reasonable men not to listen to such closed loop, narrow men who have found their way to the top through invective and repetitive mantras.  Chances are that the solutions to our energy problems will not come from the Powerpoint presenters on the Beltway or the Ivory Tower.  It’s the paradox of our time that only unbelievers (in single dogmatic solutions) celebrate the wide open opportunities the future still offers to us.

No, there is something more than internal combustion, fission, and fusion.  It’s blowing in the wind.  Coming from the sun above.  Riding the waves.  Interwoven in our greenery.  It’s less transforming of nature, and more in harmony with it.

P.S.  Edgar Guest, from Birmingham, England, became the People’s Poet in America.  He was much too popular to be celebrated by the powers-that-be in poetryville.  He was a “can-do” poet, not mournful enough for the academic stage.

P.P.S.  We have never been sure if Amory Lovins and his Rocky Mountain Institute are taking us where we need to go—or whether they’re just part of the plethora of spinfactors in the environmental debate.  On the one hand, he does try to promote a wide arrange of energy alternatives and to help institutions, utilities, etc. climb aboard some new ways of doing things.  On the other hand, he is relentlessly complex and does not make his thoughts broadly available to the world at large in a simple format.  His website, for instance, is a hodgepodge.  He’s for all the right things, but he seems to lack the focus that leads to action and a tight connection with broad numbers of people.

P.P.P.S.  The Economist has a very good survey called “Cleaning Up,” June 2, 2007, pp. 3-30.  Its focus—what business is doing to reduce carbon outputs—is wrong.  The real issue is for us to diversify and localize our energy streams.  Over-centralized government leads to corruption and inertia.  Centralized power supplies lead to pollution and electricity/gas tank interruptions. Nonetheless, it is useful to learn of Khosla’s intense commitment to energy and other little factoids.  “Mr. Khosla is backing some 27 companies in four energy-cleaning areas: replacing oil, replacing coal, developing new materials and energy efficiency.”  Cleaning up the world requires structural changes in society— even more than new technology.

P.P.P.P.S.  Our sports commentator Dr. Lundquist reports: “Rugby is king of the mountain these days.  The major league baseball playoffs are a bore.  Football and golf are non-issues.  But the world contest in rugby has made us rise right out of our seats.  In Marseilles, the English smashed Australia.  The French went to Cardiff to put down New Zealand.  Needless to say, Australia and New Zealand are suppose to win it all.  The Telegraph in London chortles:  “The darkest hour—ever!’ accompanied by ‘the putrid smell of death’ has washed over Australia and New Zealand.”  But that’s not all. Portugal, which does not even really sport a professional team, has put on a sparkling performance.  And Fiji has put it to the South Africans, even though SA prevailed in the end.  Argentina, too, was unexpectedly strong.  In sports the Black Swan keeps rearing its head, turning events on their head, and regularly generating the most irregular of results.” Once again, as at Yorktown, the World has been turned upside down.  Catch all the news at Rugby World Cup 2007.

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