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Review: How Can We Outlive Our Way of Life?

Robert Rapier, The Oil Drum
We have had plenty of warnings about the consequences of an early peak in global oil production, but no one in Westminster seems to be listening.

I believe our generation faces a sobering choice: Take serious steps to reduce our fossil fuel usage now – and this will undoubtedly entail some amount of hardship – or leave it to our children to face a great deal of hardship. I firmly believe this is our choice, and we must look to solutions that move us in that direction. I also believe that if most people understood that we are pushing a very serious problem onto our children – instead of assuming scientists and engineers will solve the problem – then we would collectively pursue a solution with far greater urgency.

Berkeley Professor Tad Patzek, who has written many articles that are critical of our present attempts to replace fossil fuels with biofuels, has just published a new article in which he also discusses solutions:

How Can We Outlive Our Way of Life? (PDF download)

Many of you know Tad Patzek as the co-author of a number of papers with David Pimentel. If you are pro corn-ethanol, then you have probably been conditioned to discount everything Professor Patzek writes. But even if you disagree with his corn ethanol position, there is still a lot to take away from this paper. Patzek’s conclusion on cellulosic ethanol is the same as my own: The status of cellulosic ethanol has been exaggerated and over-hyped, and the solution that we really ought to be pursuing is electric. The abstract of the paper reads:

In this paper I outline the rational, science-based arguments that question current wisdom of replacing fossil plant fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) with fresh plant agrofuels. This 1:1 replacement is absolutely impossible for more than a few years, because of the ways the planet Earth works and maintains life. After these few years, the denuded Earth will be a different planet, hostile to human life. I argue that with the current set of objective constraints a continuous stable solution to human life cannot exist in the near-future, unless we all rapidly implement much more limited ways of using the Earth’s resources, while reducing the global populations of cars, trucks, livestock and, eventually, also humans. To avoid economic and ecological disasters, I recommend to decrease all automotive fuel use in Europe by up to 6 percent per year in 8 years, while switching to the increasingly rechargeable hybrid and all-electric cars, progressively driven by photovoltaic cells. The actual schedule of the rate of decrease should also depend on the exigencies of greenhouse gas abatement. The photovoltaic cell-battery-electric motor system is some 100 times more efficient than major agrofuel systems.

The paper is highly technical, which will turn off many people. But what I enjoy – and I believe is one of my strengths – is to distill technical information and present it so that it is more readily digestible for the layperson. My hope is that this essay succeeds in doing that.
(2 October 2007)

In Japan, Going Solar Costly Despite Market Surge
Audio and text)
David Kestenbaum, All Things Considered, National Public Radio (US)
…Houses with solar panels are still unusual in Japan, but you can get a glimpse of where things are headed in Kobe. In one new development there, the houses come with solar panels pre-installed.

It’s row after row of plain box houses. You have to tilt your head back to see the solar panels on the roofs.

A neighborhood boy wearing a “Dinosaur Power” T-shirt sets off to find his mother, Rika Suzuki.

She says she doesn’t consider herself an environmentalist. What she likes is not paying electric bills.

…But if Kyocera’s success is a story of perseverance and maybe spirituality, it’s also one of government subsidies.

Because the reality was that around 1994, if you wanted to put solar panels on your house – enough to cover most electrical needs – it would cost about $60,000.

Ryutaro Yatsu is a counselor for global environment in Japan’s Ministry of the Environment. He says the industry needed the subsidies to create a market, so the costs could decrease.

“In order to bridge the so-called ‘Death Valley,'” Yatsu says.

In 1994, the Japanese government paid half the cost of new solar installations. And people took advantage. Sales went up and costs came down by about a third. The government phased the subsidies out gradually and ended them in 2005.

Today, Yatsu says Japan is counting on solar panels to help combat global warming.

“We expect each household to have their own solar panel,” Yatsu says.
(1 October 2007)

Power harnessed one step at a time

Chris Gaylor, Christian Science Monitor
Engineers call it ‘crowd farming.’ If it works, you could help power city lights just by taking a stroll.

In the push to harvest alternative energy, scientists have tapped a number of novel sources: the sun, corn, old cooking oil. But how about the simple act of walking?

For two architecture students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., the sound of footsteps is an echo of energy gone to waste. They figure that the stomp of every footfall gives off enough power to light two 60-watt bulbs for one second.

“Now imagine how many people walk through a train station each morning, or walk down the street in Hong Kong,” says James Graham, who, with fellow MIT graduate student Thaddeus Jusczyk, is helping to develop the growing field of “crowd farming.”

They devised a special floor of sliding blocks that can turn motion energy (such as from a footstep) into electrical energy. As commuters march across the floor, it would collect tiny flickers of power from each stride and channel that energy.
(26 Septembe6 2007)

Can Sunshine Provide All U.S. Electricity?

David Biello, Scientific American
Large amounts of solar-thermal electric supply may become a reality if steam storage technology works-and new transmission infrastructure is built

In the often cloudless American Southwest, the sun pours more than eight kilowatt-hours* per square meter of its energy onto the landscape. Vast parabolic mirrors in the heart of California’s Mojave Desert concentrate this solar energy to heat special oil to around 750 degrees Fahrenheit (400 degrees Celsius). This hot oil transfers its heat to water, vaporizing it, and then that steam turns a turbine to produce electricity. All told, nine such mirror fields, known as concentrating solar power plants, supply 350 megawatts of electricity yearly.

In the face of mounting concern about climate change, alternatives to coal and natural gas combustion such as these never seemed more attractive. And with the bounty of the sun waiting to be captured near fast-growing major centers of electricity consumption-Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix, among others-interest in such solar thermal technology is on the rise. The first such plant to be built in decades started providing 64 megawatts of electricity to the neon lights of Vegas this summer.
(19 September 2007)