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One of the most important issues of the first quarter of the 21st century will be clean, sustainable energy. I believe the key will be a panoply of sources: instead of using one process, one form of fuel (e.g., fossil fuels) to meet substantially alll of our energy needs, we will combine solar, geothermal, wind, waste biomass, and other sources as yet undiscovered so that no one thing has too big a burden.

One thing slowing progress is that, in part for reasons of infrastructure, petroleum is significantly cheaper than most other fuels. No one has any motivation to switch other than ecological altruism because it requires such a massive investment of time, money, and effort (to find a source for solar panels, or whatever it is).

In particular, using biodiesel in your car requires making it at home: there are no filling stations because so few people have appropriate vehicles, and no one wants a car that requires biodiesel because it’s so inconvenient to refuel.

One solution is to run your car on straight vegetable oil. This, however, makes it impossible to run the car on regular diesel fuel, which is available at filling stations, and it uses food crops (the U.S. grows so much corn that we feed it to cattle, whose bodies metabolize it far less efficiently and completely than grain, and make it into sweetener, which the government creates a market for by levying a tariff on sugarcane).

Another possibility is to use algae. Algae are easy to grow and not used for food, so there’s no chance of the fuel exacerbating food shortages. While the current method of extracting fuel from algae requires toxic solvents heavily regulated in this country, a company in Horseheads, N.Y., has developed a new solid catalyst that may alllow algae-based fuels to be produced at filling stations.

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Today’s New York Times introduces us to Energy Secretary-designate Steven Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who was responsible for forming the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, California, famous home of Peet’s and Pixar.

JBEI is a research facility dedicated to efforts to produce useable fuel from a type of plant cellulose called lignocelulose. If successful, that would mean fossil fuels can be supplemented or even replaced by renewable waste plant matter—e.g., stalks and stems—to power homes and businesses and for transportation. It would be a triumph of applied science, with vast and far-reaching effects.

This is one of a number of alternative fuel research projects Chu initiated and implemented during his tenure at Berkeley Lab. The current Secretary of Energy, research chemist Samuel Bodman, is one of the few members of the Bush Administration about whom I can’t find anything really negative to say; however, his energy approach seems to center on nuclear power, which requires costly infrastructure and perpetuates the vulnerable power-plant-based model of electric power.

To power a community with nuclear energy, you have to build an expensive nuclear plant. If accident or terrorism disrupts a nuclear plant, while that probably wouldn’t be dangerous by itself, entire towns, states, or regions could go dark—in August of 2003 such an accident shut off power for an estimated 50 million people in Ontario and eight northeastern states in the U.S. (and Al-Quaeda falsely claimed responsibility). On top of all that, nuclear energy is a useless option for cars, trucks, trains, and air travel—you can’t put a nuclear engine in an airplane, if only because of the weight of the necessary shielding.

Global warming and global warfare point to the need to embrace new sources for energy. Steven Chu is on the forefront of that effort. It’s good to see the incoming Obama administration supporting progress in this area.


And with that, I’m taking the week off. Happy holidays, one and all.

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