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Next Generation Energy

August 18, 2008

This cartoon makes delightful fun of a fundamental misconception about “alternative energy.”  Before carbon energy came along and rocketed our species through the industrial revolution, (and apart from cookfires), “alternative” energy was the only kind available.  We built windmills and water wheels and harnessed solar energy in various clever ways.  And we’re doing those same things now, in more advanced ways.  But it seems like we have boxed ourselves in.  We want a single, amazing energy source that can step in and give us clean, dependable energy without expending too much of our own energy.

But it’s easy to forget that weaving carbon energy into our culture was not exactly the work of an afternoon.  The infrastructure we take for granted today not only took more than a century to create, it hides complexities most people never suspect.  Whatever we do next is going to have to ‘dovetail’ rather neatly with existing energy delivery technologies if it could be expected to do us much good at all.

I’ve been meaning to draw attention to the new ScienceBlog, Next Generation Energy for a while now.  But the Shell sponsorship has been a ‘caution’ sign to me.  Experience has taught me to be suspicious when carbon energy companies talk about green initiatives.  All too often it just ends up being a way of stalling and obfuscating.

But no worries; the blog seems to be pretty independent.  So far they’ve talked about various permutations of concentrated and PV solar, and about biomass research using cyanobacteria.

Yeah… those cyanobacteria.  Found almost everywhere, but with some tweaking they can make diesel fuel out of whatever.  You put ‘em in the right place and give ‘em a job to do, and they’ll do good work.  Thing is, for the reasons I mentioned above, we need liquid biofuels, and it’s important it be made from stuff other than food.  So this is a good thing – even if an oil company is doing it.

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  1. August 18, 2008 at 19:50 | #1

    Businesses are starting in on alternative energy. Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because of “image” and PR… well I guess some might care. I am working with a group at the company to research areas of interest. So far we are looking into Green Roofs and PV solar panels.

    I talked to my Dad about similar issues and the way he put was, even though you could argue the ethics or morality of a company, there are still good people doing good things at those companies. And that is what I have found. There are good people trying to do good things.

  2. August 18, 2008 at 20:41 | #2

    For a company to “care” about something, it has to make economic sense for the stockholders – at least a good enough case for the long term to put up with some short-term loss.

    It makes good sense for that bloodless, nonliving unbreathing soulless thing, the corporation, to hire people who care a lot about a given project, however.  If you’re going to have a green initiative, you don’t want people who will half-ass it.  You want people in it who dream of the day when the world runs on clean energy, want a better tomorrow for their grandchildren, etc.

    Of course, if the company later decides to dump the green initiative, it will destroy those committed, caring people.  But again the company, undead thing that it is, cannot “care” about that.

  3. August 18, 2008 at 22:47 | #3

    There are no signs of this soulless company deciding to dump the green initiatives. Their competitors are doing the same thing and like I said, I think this one aint about economics directly, but more of image. And lots of money is being spent to research and implement green ideas. And surprisingly, while the markets aren’t doing too hot, this company is still turning some amazing profits.

    They have set some incredibly lofty goals, but I’m not one to complain. I’ll help them reach it and not bother to question the motivations. The reasons behind it might not be the best, but at least something is being done. I can get behind that and support it.

  4. Lucas
    August 19, 2008 at 13:59 | #4

    “For a company to “care” about something, it has to make economic sense for the stockholders – at least a good enough case for the long term to put up with some short-term loss.”

    That’s why we need something like a carbon tax or a cap ‘n’ trade[1] system to make innovations like this make more business sense.  It also might make sense to subsidize energy efficiency improvements with low interest loans, since conservation is the cheapest way to reduce carbon emissions.  Thankfully both presidential candidates are talking some sense, but McCain wants to give carbon credits away to current polluters, which proved to be an enormous subsidy to carbon emitters when that was done in Europe.

    Of course some green energy already makes sense for businesses trying to reduce volatility in energy prices.  After all, sunlight and wind are going to stay the same price forever (i.e. free), while other sources of energy are likely to keep increasing in price.

    [1] A cap ‘n’ trade system is to a cap and trade system as rock ‘n’ roll is to rock and roll—less correctly spelled.

  5. August 19, 2008 at 15:43 | #5

    Everybody talks about new methods of producing energy. I wish there were more conversation at the highest levels about conserving energy. In the short run, I believer conservation has more potential for energy cost and environmental protection than all the high-tech ideas put together (not that I’m against those ideas).

    I know I’m shouting in the wilderness here.

  6. August 19, 2008 at 23:15 | #6

    Not at all Gerry. Your point is an excellent one and is also something my company is working on as well, though not as strong as the technology angle. I think it’s related to the whole “image” thing. Apparently it’s sexier to introduce solar panels and wind energy than to say, “Why don’t we monitor the heating and cooling systems better, recycle, and teach good habits of conservation?”

    In the grander scheme of things this is why Obama has made statements about checking tires and car maintenance. I wish more people would listen to him.

    And I agree with Lucas, though I like the Carbon Tax idea better than Cap ‘n’ Trade.

  7. August 27, 2008 at 05:30 | #7

    The bio-fuel thing seems to be a good substitute for now. Although coconuts might be the next scarcity if we overdo this.

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