Wednesday, July 11, 2007

alternative energy source that might work?

There's an intersting essay in Slate that showed up in Sunday's Outlook section of the Washington Post. Here's the citation: HUMAN NATURE, A Corny Cold War, by William Saletan, Sunday, July 8, 2007; Page B02

Outlook pieces are usually earnest, one-sided, wonkish, and written in self-consiously persuasive manner.

This piece is glib, ironic, and self-consiously quotable. It's Gibbon-esque in its twists and turns, though not in its sentence structure.

The subject is bio fuels. The author tells us that what seems obvious just isn't so. It does make sense to use agriculture to make fuel. Yes, the result will be higher food prices, but the increase in available energy sources, and presumably the restraint on energy price rises, should (not definitely will) more than offset them.

He says, "Fuel is the whole point of food." Which just isn't the way we're used to thinking about food: fuel for conversion to energy in animals, yes, but fuel to power motor vehicles?

What about the corruption of agricultural price supports in industrial nations? He says they're a problem: "Yes, ethanol subsidies are a scam. Yes, we should drop our trade barriers and let Brazilian sugar cane wipe out American corn." (As if they're political will for that.)

But he also says an enlighted biofuel policy can help lift third-world nations out of poverty: "Sugar cane, wood chips and switch grass. Such 'cellulosic' ethanol could lower the output of greenhouse gases and deliver up to six times the amount of energy its production requires. If you want to help poor people, biofuel beats the heck out of oil. In a biofuel economy, the chief asset is open land. Who has open land? Poor countries. Latin America has sugar cane. Africa and Asia have cassava. Switch grass, which grows in dry regions, will level the playing field further. Bush says that switch grass will empower the western United States. That's nice, but the real story is that it'll empower the Southern Hemisphere."

It's all pretty neat -- though fearfully difficult to achieve.

Read the whole thing if you have time. And notice how the author ironically pits Bush against Castro, ironically turns environmentalism and anti-globalism upside down, and uses abundant catch phrases and some provocative statements to make his case:

A fuel that literally grows on trees.

The old buzzword was "job security." The new buzzword is "food security."

Most of the corn we export today feeds livestock, not people.
Two months ago, a U.N. report calculated that one-third of the increased demand for food over the next 30 years will come from people shifting their eating habits to meat and dairy -- a net loss of dietary efficiency -- as they become able to afford it.

We're studying the use of microbes to extract fuel from straw and wood waste. We're trying to grow biofuel in algae. We're even learning to make fuel from animal fat and excrement.

Yes, we need solar power, conservation and efficiency. But don't give up on biofuel. It just needs time to grow.

William Saletan covers science and technology for Slate, the online magazine at

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