Wednesday, June 30, 2010

New Video: Does America Have a Water Crisis?

TUESDAY, JUNE 29, 2010 AT 10:59AM

Have you ever considered how much it costs to keep unlimited clean water flowing into your faucets at home? Or how much water goes into growing all the food that you eat? Can you imagine our supply of water running out?
These are topics we explored during our interview with Robert Glennon, Professor of Law and Public Policy at the University of Arizona and author of Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It. He's on a mission to hold government and individuals responsible for true stewardship of our our most valuable natural resource: water.
Glennon explains that it took thousands of years for water to accumulate in our underground aquifers but we're pumping it out in mere decades. Consider these events that have occurred in the last two years:
  • Lake Lanier, the water supply for Atlanta, a metropolitan area of 4.5 million people, came within 90 days of going dry.
  • In the summer of 2009, California faced mandatory water rationing. Many farmers could have been entirely cut off, costing the economy more than $1 billion and putting more than 50,000 people out of work.
  • Lake Superior, the earth’s largest freshwater body, was too shallow to float fully-loaded cargo ships.
  • Decimated salmon runs prompted cancellation of the commercial fishing season off the coast of California and Oregon.
  • Excessive groundwater pumping has caused sinkholes, earth fissures, and subsidence in geographic regions that range from California to Florida.
Glennon believes that America must make hard choices—and his answer is a provocative market-based system that values water as a commodity and a fundamental human right. He advocates creating legal and financial incentives to encourage conservation and smart re-use of water.
For example, because cheap water is essential for running factories and even the tech industry, he thinks companies should be charged for the real cost of what they consume. He also wants to support farmers in achieving more efficient watering methods such as drip tape irrigation and growing higher nutrient crops that are adapted to the growing climate.
He cites his home town of Tucson as an example of innovation because instead of getting rid of water that was used only once, the city diverts grey water into gulf courses, highway medians, parks and light industrial uses. But in most of our nation's cities, there's still a long way to go in preserving our water supply. Whether you agree that we should pay more for our water or not, Glennon's analysis certainly makes you think differently about wasting what comes out of the tap...
-Dorothée and Mark

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Community Garden, or Gardening Community?

Summer has hit D.C. like a blast from a furnace. Even in the early mornings, before the sun is fully up, we break a sweat simply by filling a watering pail. Our garden, however, is thriving.

Almost a month has passed since our last update, so here's where things stand. We've been harvesting more leafy chard and beets than we can eat, and our tomato plants are growing heavy with green orbs. (A fellow gardener suggested that spraying the tomato leaves with cayenne pepper mixed with water will keep away the bugs that have been nibbling.) I get a thrill from plucking dozens of long, fuzzy, green beans from their stems. The herbs are still coming along—Bryan used our fresh dill to make cheddar-dill scones last weekend—and even the carrots that we transplanted when we thinned out the rows are looking healthy and thick. The pepper plants are flowering, but no peppers yet. And the salad greens we planted from seed about four weeks ago have sprouted small, tender leaves. As always, we have a lot of weeding to do.

Over the past few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about the relationships we've built through the garden, and the garden's place in our larger community. In the few months we've been working at Twin Oaks, our fellow gardeners have loaned us their motorized tiller, and shared straw for mulching. Just this week we were given four spare okra plants. It's common for people to leave extra produce or seeds on a communal table for the taking. In turn, we've shared some of our bounty with friends who have helped us weed and water, and pitched in to build a trellis or refill rain barrels. There are also a number of workshops for people who want them, on topics like composting, or the workings of the garden's new beehive.

But despite the friendly group within Twin Oaks, it can still feel a little cut off from the area immediately surrounding it. Yes, all of the gardeners live nearby, but our demographics aren't representative of the largely black and Latino neighborhood as a whole. Even though the almost 50-year-old garden is on public land, both the north and south lots are kept locked to protect the tools and equipment onsite. There's no signage displaying the garden's mission or website, or how one can get involved. It's not uncommon for passers-by to stare, or shout through the fence as we work, wondering what we're doing. Some ask if there is any room for them to garden too. Unfortunately, right now, there isn't.

Of course, most people are happy to let anyone who's curious walk around, or answer questions. Neighboring residents contribute to, and use, the compost pile, even though they are not garden members. And a few plots within Twin Oaks are dedicated to growing vegetables to donate to city nonprofits, and one is set aside for a partnership with nearby Powell Elementary School. But the majority of the gardeners, including us, are growing mostly for themselves.

Within the District, there are a number of options for people who want to garden, even if they don't wrangle hard-to-get space in a community lot, but they're not always well-known. For example,Sharing Backyards D.C. matches people who don't have access to land with people willing to loan space in their yards. The challenge, it seems, is effectively promoting these programs so that even more people can participate, whether it's for recreation or subsistence.

It's also a matter of priorities. Earlier this month, food channel contributor Azby Brown highlighted the community garden model in Japan, in which dense urban developments are planned around existing growing lots, some of which are centuries old. "Their farming is something deep and rich," he writes, "an anchor to the land, and a means of reinforcing social bonds." Meanwhile, here in D.C. a resident-built community garden on Capitol Hill was recently threatened with destruction to make way for a new Marines barracks.

None of this is to suggest that urban gardening, especially on an individual scale, is an easy answer to problems like food deserts, diabetes, or obesity. Gardening can be hard, and time-consuming. We've saved money on produce this summer and had plenty of fresh, healthy food to eat, but it wouldn't be as practical for us if we had young children, or worked irregular hours, or held multiple jobs. Yet gardening creates value. As Bryan and I have learned, there is immense satisfaction in growing one's own food, and benefits in the relationships that are built in the process. Going forward, I hope we'll see greater awareness of and access to gardening opportunities for D.C. residents—in other words, an effort to put the community back in community gardening.

RACHAEL BROWN - Rachael Brown is a staff editor at The Atlantic, and a former public school teacher.

Rachael Brown is a staff editor and fact checker at The Atlantic. She has written for The Atlantic,The Guardian, and National Journal, among other outlets, and covers the D.C. public schools for Prior to joining The Atlantic, Rachael was a speechwriter and blogger for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s ED in ‘08 campaign and taught 11th grade English in Washington, D.C. In 2007, she was a recipient of a Symantec Award for Innovation in Teaching. Rachael is a Texas native, and holds a B.F.A. from Emerson College and an M.A. from American University.

Past gardening posts by Rachael Brown:

Monday, June 28, 2010

Creating a Post-Peak Future You will Want to Live Into

Posted by Gail the Actuary on June 26, 2010 - 7:37pm in The Oil Drum: Campfire
Topic: Environment/Sustainability
This is a guest post by André Angelantoni, known on TOD as aangel. He is co-founder of and a former executive coach and business consultant. He wrote this article to give people one way to navigate through the forced transition to a post peak world we are all going to experience. This post was run previously in December 2008.The future most people are living into is beginning to disappear. The financial crisis threw the first punch, but oil depletion will deliver the knockout blow. The moment people realize that the society they have known their whole life can no longer function the same way without the energy provided by oil, it will become glaringly apparent that the future will be very, very different. It’s not just that we will no longer have fresh food flown in from around the world. Some of the fundamental assumptions held by people living in the rich countries will no longer hold:
  • many jobs that have never existed before will once again no longer exist
  • retirement, a phenomenon only a century old, will disappear
  • accumulating “wealth” will be out of reach for most people
  • most children will no longer be able to attend institutions of higher education
  • diseases and conditions that are easily treated now will once again claim lives
Once a person has realized that these and many more futures will no longer exist, they will ask themselves the following question: If the future I’ve lived with my whole life will not longer occur, what will my future be?
People will react in many different ways as they consider the question of what their future will be. Some people will become resigned and despondent, others will become resolute as they concentrate on the job of making sure they and their family are sheltered and adequately fed. Still others will become happier as they leave the rat race and simplify their life. If you are considering this question, hopefully you will realize that creating the future rather than waiting for it to happen to you will give you a better result. That's what this article is about.Before continuing, I am going to outline a principle that is a part of the coaching model I use. It is not the only model in the world, but it has worked consistently for me and my clients.

Your Future Gives You Your Experience of Now

In this article, I will operate on the following principle:
The future a person lives into determines how they operate in and experience the present.
This may seem counter-intuitive to you because there seems to be so much evidence that it is the past that gives us our experience of now. For example, don’t we feel proud of our accomplishments — and didn’t those accomplishments happen in the past? Don’t we suffer from events — and aren’t those events in the past?To see that it’s our future that gives us our experience of the present, try this simple experiment. Imagine you are holding a lottery ticket and are about to check the winning numbers. You might be interested and cautiously optimistic. As you read the winning numbers you realize that yours is the winning ticket. What is your experience at the moment you realize you’ve won the jackpot?
If you are like most people, you will be surprised and ecstatic. But has anything — in physical reality — changed in any way? No, it hasn’t. But the future you see before you has completely changed and your happiness comes from a new future filled with a life of leisure or travel or the finest things in life.
The same principle operates whenever a future changes. Whether it’s agreeing to marry someone, getting a new job or facing a serious illness, in all these circumstances the future determines how you operate in and experience the present.
What about those past events, the accomplishments and tragedies? Don’t they impact us in the present? They certainly do, but the impact comes from how they have changed the future that we live into because those events happened. I’ll leave it as homework to the reader to determine the future that is created when we experience an accomplishment or tragedy.
People who panic when they learn of peak oil see a terrible future for themselves and society. Although I didn’t panic when I first learned of peak oil, I did experience a feeling of dread. I looked into the future and saw the possibility of social turmoil and hunger. This seems to be a common reaction, and most people move through the experience in hours or days as they gradually see that the gloomy future is not inevitable.

Gloomy Futures Are Useful — To a Point

Gloomy futures are often conjured up by your brain without your permission or guidance. Your brain is simply an associative machine that took in the idea of oil depletion, recalled images from its past (perhaps including a Mad Max movie), and plopped the result in your mental lap. Although it may have you prepare in ways you wouldn’t normally, this gloomy future can also paralyze you and turn you into a morose individual unable to experience the joy there is and will always be available in life.If you are unsatisfied with the future your brain invented for you, you will have to create one yourself.

Quality of Life vs Standard of Living

We’re almost ready to discuss how to create a future worth living into. I’m going to make one more distinction that should help the transition. With the loss of inexpensive and plentiful oil you are not just confronting the loss of vacations in the Tropics. It will look like the sudden loss of much more than that. But what is it you are losing, exactly?At this point it’s valuable to get yourself clear on what you are actually going to lose. If you don’t stop your brain, it is likely to say, “Everything!”, send you down a dark tunnel and leave you there. But you aren’t going to lose everything; you aren’t even going to lose the most important things, as you’ll soon see. That’s because almost every person tends to make one fundamental mistake (myself included when I’m not paying attention).
We tend to confuse what economists call “standard of living” with “quality of life.” The two are not the same, no matter how many vacation advertisements try to convince you otherwise. The standard of living index measures the number of things a person can purchase or possess. This is again useful only to a point. Beyond the very basics of life, like food and shelter, we want things not for the things themselves but for what they give us at an emotional level.
We want money to go on vacation so that we can have fun. But is it necessary to leave town to have fun? We want to send our kids to college so that they can “create a future for themselves.” But what does that mean? Are people who don’t go to college incapable of experiencing happiness in their life? If your children were healthy and happy, wouldn’t you have done your job as a parent? We know that the poor can be happy and the rich can be (often desperately) unhappy.
Things and circumstances fool us into short-term happiness, and then the happiness wears off and the cycle starts again. Have you noticed as your income rose, your expectations rose with them? If you hadn’t noticed that, you’re in the standard of living trap and you don’t even know it.

Creating a Future Worth Living Into

Now we’re ready to look at futures worth living into. This future won’t be attached to things and circumstances or you’ll never get out of the trap. So, as you create your new future, remember to resist the pull of equating being fulfilled with having things. Many people who have been preparing for peak oil have found that their life has dramatically improved as they have taken on new responsibilities and learned new skills, like growing their own food, even as they started to lower the number of luxuries in their life.One of the most powerful ways I’ve found to create a fulfilling future is to distinguish a role for yourself. Roles are powerful because they establish a context to live in and are easy to remember. When we take on a role, we automatically get access to all the properties that define the role. For instance, if I say that I will take on the role of being a loving husband, I don’t have to memorize “The Ten Steps to Being a Loving Husband.” I will immediately have access to ways of expressing that role I’ve heard about (like hiding love notes around the house) and I will easily invent new ways to express the role with just a bit of creativity.
You are undoubtedly playing all sorts of roles right now, and there are thousands of roles you can play in post-peak oil world. Your job is to create a new, fulfilling role for yourself. Here are a few basic roles, starting with some roles you may want to avoid.
  • The Victim. To play this role, you should complain that the world isn’t fair and that there isn’t enough time to prepare. Talk only about things that we will lose or how other people or groups are better off than you. Unfortunately, this role isn’t very attractive and people will try to avoid you — but it is a valid role. I include it so that you can recognize when you are playing the victim, discard it, and choose a different role.
  • The Drama Queen. Be a Drama Queen by saying, “We are so screwed” or similar things after describing how you see the future playing out. This can be a fun role to play, especially when describing a Mad Max scenario in great detail. Most people will eventually want you to talk about how they can actually prepare for the future. The Drama Queen role can often be matched up with the Victim role to great effect, but people tire of it quickly.
  • The Bystander. To do a good job with this role, say “what will happen will happen” whenever you hear about something terrible happening, preferably in Spanish. This is actually a good role to keep handy because often events will truly be out of your control, and there is no need to get your knickers in a knot over them.
  • The Leader. With this role, you see peak oil as an opportunity to make a difference in your community and the world. You can be a leader in thousands of ways, from starting a community garden to inviting friends over to teach them a useful skill you know. The only requirement to be a leader is that you create a future that wasn’t going to happen anyway. You don't need to know how to speak in front of crowds and you don't need a commanding presence. All you need is the commitment to create a future that wasn't going to happen unless you became involved.
You can add these roles to any that you are currently playing (parent, student, entertainer, etc.), and you can switch at any time. Of course some roles will give you better results than others.Being a leader can be an immensely fulfilling role and one I wholeheartedly recommend, especially since we are going to need many local leaders very soon. I'd like to see the leadership positions filled with people who see it as way to serve the community rather than to enrich themselves materially. But that doesn't mean you won't get benefits by being a leader, and there should be some benefits. For example, being a leader means that you will create your own support network faster, and you will gain information about the world earlier than others, allowing you to prepare better.
Many people shy away from being a leader because they think it is a burden, but they have it backwards: the Leader role can be freeing because small inconveniences stop being annoying — as a leader you’ll have bigger, more inspiring goals on your mind.


In this article, we looked at how your experience and actions in the present are a function of the future you are living into. We also saw that your brain will invent a gloomy future given no direction: To have a fulfilling future to live into, you’ll need to take charge. Then we noted one of the most common mistakes people make: confusing the economists’ standard of living with quality of life. Last, we looked at some roles that you might consider taking on, particularly the Leader role.Ultimately, the purpose of this article was to point out that many of the roles you are playing now are no longer going to hold, and that you will need to take charge. Take a moment and ask yourself, “What kind of fulfilling role can I create for myself in a post peak world?”

Monday, June 21, 2010

Net Benefits of Biomass Power Under Scrutiny

June 18, 2010

By TOM ZELLER Jr., New York Times

GREENFIELD, Mass. — Matthew Wolfe, an energy developer with plans to turn tree branches and other woody debris into electric power, sees himself as a positive force in the effort to wean his state off of planet-warming fossil fuels.

“It’s way better than coal,” Mr. Wolfe said, “if you look at it over its life cycle.”

Not everyone agrees, as evidenced by lawn signs in this northwestern Massachusetts town reading “Biomass? No Thanks.”

In fact, power generated by burning wood, plants and other organic material, which makes up 50 percent of all renewable energy produced in the United States, according to federal statistics, is facing increased scrutiny and opposition.

That, critics say, is because it is not as climate-friendly as once thought, and the pollution it causes in the short run may outweigh its long-term benefits.

The opposition to biomass power threatens its viability as a renewable energy source when the country is looking to diversify its energy portfolio, urged on by President Obama in an address to the nation Tuesday. It also underscores the difficult and complex choices state and local governments face in pursuing clean-energy goals.

Biomass proponents say it is a simple and proved renewable technology based on natural cycles. They acknowledge that burning wood and other organic matter releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere just as coal does, but point out that trees and plants also absorb the gas. If done carefully, and without overharvesting, they say, the damage to the climate can be offset.

But opponents say achieving that sort of balance is almost impossible, and carbon-absorbing forests will ultimately be destroyed to feed a voracious biomass industry fueled inappropriately by clean-energy subsidies. They also argue that, like any incinerating operation, biomass plants generate all sorts of other pollution, including particulate matter. State and federal regulators are now puzzling over these arguments.

Last month, in outlining its plans to regulate greenhouse gases, the Environmental Protection Agency declined to exempt emissions from “biogenic” sources like biomass power plants. That dismayed the biomass and forest products industries, which typically describe biomass as “carbon neutral.”

The agency said more deliberation was needed.

Meanwhile, plans for several biomass plants around the country have been dropped because of stiff community opposition.

In March, a $250 million biomass power project planned for Gretna, Fla., was abandoned after residents complained that it threatened air quality. Two planned plants in Indiana have faced similar grass-roots opposition.

In April, an association of family physicians in North Carolina told state regulators that biomass power plants there, like other plants and factories that pollute the air, could “increase the risk of premature death, asthma, chronic bronchitis and heart disease.”

In Massachusetts, fierce opposition to a handful of projects in the western part of the state, including Mr. Wolfe’s, prompted officials to order a moratorium on new permits last December, and to commission a scientific review of the environmental credentials of biomass power.

That study, released last week, concluded that, at least in Massachusetts, power plants using woody material as fuel would probably prove worse for the climate than existing coal plants over the next several decades. Plants that generate both heat and power, displacing not just coal but also oil and gas, could yield dividends faster, the report said. But in every case, the study found, much depends on what is burned, how it is burned, how forests are managed and how the industry is regulated.

Ian A. Bowles, the secretary of the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said that biomass power and sustainable forest management were not mutually exclusive. But he also said that the logical conclusion from the study was that biomass plants that generated electricity alone probably should not be eligible for incentives for renewable energy.

“That would represent a significant change in policy,” Mr. Bowles said.

The biomass industry argues that studies like the one in Massachusetts do not make a clear distinction between wood harvested specifically for energy production and the more common, and desirable, practice of burning wood and plant scraps left from agriculture and logging operations.

The Biomass Power Association, a trade group based in Maine, said in a statement last week that it was “not aware of any facilities that use whole trees for energy.”

During a recent visit to an old gravel pit outside of town where he hopes to build his 47-megawatt Pioneer Renewable Energy project, Mr. Wolfe said the plant would be capable of generating heat and power, and would use only woody residues as a feedstock. “It’s really frustrating,” he said. “There’s a tremendous deficit of trust that is really inhibiting things.”

In the United States, biomass power plants burn a variety of feedstocks, including rice hulls in Louisiana and sugar cane residues, called bagasse, in parts of Florida and Hawaii. A vast majority, though, some 90 percent, use woody residue as a feedstock, according to the Biomass Power Association. About 75 percent of biomass electricity comes from the paper and pulp companies, which collect their residues and burn them to generate power for themselves.

But more than 80 operations in 20 states are grid-connected and generate power for sale to local utilities and distribution to residential and commercial customers, a $1 billion industry, according to the association. The increasing availability of subsidies and tax incentives has put dozens of new projects in the development pipeline.

The problem with all this biomass, critics argue, is that wood can actually churn out more greenhouse gases than coal. New trees might well cancel that out, but they do not grow overnight. That means the low-carbon attributes of biomass are often realized too slowly to be particularly useful for combating climate change.

Supporters of the technology say those limitations can be overcome with tight regulation of what materials are burned and how they are harvested. “The key question is the rate of use,” said Ben Larson of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group based in Cambridge, Mass., that supports the sensible use of biomass power. “We need to consider which sources are used, and how the land is taken care of over the long haul.”

But critics maintain that “sustainable” biomass power is an oxymoron, and that nowhere near enough residual material exists to feed a large-scale industry. Plant owners, they say, will inevitably be forced to seek out less beneficial fuels, including whole trees harvested from tracts of land that never would have been logged otherwise. Those trees, critics say, would do far more to absorb planet-warming gases if they were simply let alone.

“The fact is, you might get six or seven megawatts of power from residues in Massachusetts,” said Chris Matera, the founder of Massachusetts Forest Watch. “They’re planning on building about 200 megawatts. So it’s a red herring. It’s not about burning waste wood. This is about burning trees.”

Whether or not that is true, biomass power is also coming under attack simply for the ordinary air pollution it produces. Web sites like No Biomass Burn, based in the Pacific Northwest, liken biomass emissions to cigarette smoke. Duff Badgley, the coordinator of the site, says a proposed plant in Mason County, Washington, would “rain toxic pollutants” on residents there. And the American Lung Association has asked Congress to exclude subsidies for biomass from any new energy bill, citing potentially “severe impacts” on health.

Nathaniel Greene, the director of renewable energy policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that while such concerns were not unfounded, air pollution could be controlled. “It involves technology that we’re really good at,” Mr. Greene said. For opponents like Mr. Matera, the tradeoffs are not worth it.

“We’ve got huge problems,” Mr. Matera said. “And there’s no easy answer. But biomass doesn’t do it. It’s a false solution that has enormous impacts.”

Mr. Wolfe says that is shortsighted. Wind power and solar power are not ready to scale up technologically and economically, he said, particularly in this corner of Massachusetts. Biomass, by contrast, is proven and available, and while it is far from perfect, he argued, it can play a small part in reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

“Is it carbon-neutral? Is it low-carbon? There’s some variety of opinion,” Mr. Wolfe said. “But that’s missing the forest for the trees. The question I ask is, What’s the alternative?”

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wal-Mart Helps Small Farms Supply 'Local' Foods

by Kelly MacNeil, NPR

- June 18, 2010

In recent years, Wal-Mart has tried to soften its image as a corporate steamroller with a number of local and environmental projects.

The company wants to revitalize small and midsize farms in the U.S. and has begun a program to increase the amount of local produce sold in Walmart stores. The program also benefits consumers, who have access to fresher food, as well as Wal-Mart itself. But some critics are skeptical of the program's logistics.

A Win-Win Program?

At a Walmart in Maumelle, Ark., a stock boy pushes fruit cups and salad toppings onto produce racks. On this day, most fruits and vegetables are labeled with faraway locations: Washington state, Florida, Honduras.

It's cheaper to grow food in those places, but getting it to central Arkansas burns a lot of fuel. And while environmentalists worry about carbon emissions, Wal-Mart sees dollar signs.

"A surprising percentage, on many crops, of the cost of the goods is the freight," says Ron McCormick, the head of Wal-Mart's Heritage Agriculture program.

The company is building up smaller farms to get more local produce into stores for both economic and environmental reasons. McCormick says most local farmers just aren't prepared to supply the retail giant with the huge quantity and consistent quality of produce it requires.

"[It] seemed to be a win all across the board if we could use our buying power to reinvigorate some of those old agricultural areas that had been abandoned over time," McCormick says.


Wal-Mart is eyeing areas like southern Arkansas, where farmer Randy Clanton drives the back roads of the town of Hermitage. He's checking on field workers preparing tomato seedlings. A shotgun rides in the truck beside him.

Clanton says his family started growing tomatoes in this area 50 years ago. "That was back when most of your produce business was done in small, mom and pop operations," Clanton says. "They'd bring these tomatoes in on trailer trucks, even on half-bushel baskets back then."

Clanton says Wal-Mart has helped make his operation more professional, especially in the area of food safety. Wal-Mart has urged Clanton to diversify and plant watermelons, peppers and cabbage. Now he supplies food to distribution centers covering six states. And the larger market means Clanton makes more money.

"It gives us a sense of security whenever we go out here and start kicking the dirt out here and cranking up ole John Deeres up to get ready," he says. "If you know you've got a market out there -- that gives you a reason to get up out of bed every morning."

Clanton is one of about 350 farmers Wal-Mart is working with as part of its Heritage Agriculture program.

The Realities Of Local Produce

But when Wal-Mart sells Clanton's Arkansas produce in Illinois, is that still "local food" -- or is it business as usual?

"You can do a Heritage Agriculture program and buy certain products grown in Connecticut for your Connecticut stores," says Jim Prevor, who used to work in produce distribution but now writes the blog Perishable Pundit. "But in the end it's not going to be a significant part of that Connecticut store's produce sales because most of the months of the year you can't grow anything in Connecticut."

"When you've got a private organization the size of Wal-Mart, anything they do in a positive direction for the environment, if they can find a better business model, then the ripple effects are huge," says Michelle Harvey of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Harvey notes, for example, that Wal-Mart now grows cilantro for Eastern stores in Florida rather than California. Costs are lower, and the herbs are fresher for customers.

Wal-Mart won't say what its long-term goal is for the Heritage Agriculture program, but it says as of today, 6 percent of its produce is grown in the same state it's sold.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The True Value of Energy is the Net Energy

Posted by David Murphy on June 12, 2010 - 9:50am in The Oil Drum: Net Energy 

"The true value of energy to society is the net energy, which is that after the energy costs of getting and concentrating that energy are subtracted.” - H.T. Odum (1973)
To reduce Odum’s assertion to a pithy phrase—it takes energy to get energy – and for the past 150 years society has accessed enormous quantities of energy in the form of fossil fuels at a very low cost. Early U.S. oil production provided 100 barrels of oil for every barrel spent in getting that oil (Cleveland 2005), while traditional fuel sources (e.g. biomass) returned much less. This huge increase in net energy enabled society to build cities, increase crop yields, build cars, etc…
Today, the circumstances are different, as nearly all of the easy-to-find and easy-to-produce oil wells have been found and produced. For example, Ghawar, the world’s biggest oil field, was discovered in 1948, and even with all of the advances in seismic technology over the past 60 years, nary an oil well of nearly the same magnitude has been found.

What has become very clear over the past decade and especially the past month is that the energy cost of getting oil has increased. We need only to compare the wooden oil derricks used to produce the fields of the early 20th century to that used currently in the Gulf of Mexico – two billion dollar ultra-deep water platforms.

Figure 1. East Texas Oil Field (google images).

Figure 2. Deepwater oil rig (google images).

As the energy cost of getting energy increases, the amount of net energy provided to society from an oil field decreases. Take, for example, the following two hypothetical societies (Figures 3 and 4). Society A has an energy source that can be extracted at an EROI of 18. Society B has an energy source that can be extracted at an EROI of 1.2. In this example both societies extract 100 units of energy, but due to the different EROIs with which that energy is extracted, the amount of net energy provided to society is much different. Society A must invest six units of energy to maintain the energy infrastructure needed to extract 100 units of energy, while Society B must invest 80 units of energy. The end result is that society A has 96 units of net energy to allocate to whichever means it desires, while society B has only 20 units of net energy.

Figure 3. Net energy flows with a high extraction EROI. Numbers calculated using the following equation: Net Energy = Gross Energy * (EROI-1/EROI). 

Figure 4. Net energy flows with a low extraction EROI.

As oil becomes harder and harder to find and produce, the energy cost of getting energy will continue to increase, transitioning the world from the situation in Society A toward that of Society B. Take, for example, the current debacle in the Gulf of Mexico. Even if we are able to fix the well expediently and extract any remaining oil, the energy costs of this well will likely be greater than the energy gains.
As long as the amount of energy needed to get energy continues to increase, the supply of net energy to society will decrease, despite that fact that the gross supply of oil may stay constant or even slightly increase in the short term. This means that in the future the amount of energy available for discretionary purposes, i.e. building houses, roads, and schools, will decrease, as more and more energy must be dedicated to, for example, the construction of oil pipelines, ultra-deepwater rigs, the energy to mitigate oil spills, etc... As Joseph Tainter noted in his book, the Collapse of Complex Societies, "Eventually the point is reached when all the energy and resources available to a society are required just to maintain its existing level of complexity.”
So when press releases are made about new discoveries, ask yourself: “how much energy will be used to get that energy, or what will be the energy profit?”

Friday, June 4, 2010

Exxon $600 Million Algae Investment Makes Khosla See Pipe Dream

By Kambiz Foroohar,  Bloomberg

June 3 (Bloomberg) -- Inside an industrial warehouse in South San Francisco, California,Harrison Dillon, chief technology officer of startup Solazyme Inc., examines a beaker filled with a brown paste made of sugar cane waste. While the smell brings to mind molasses, this goo, called bagasse, won’t find its way into people-pleasing confections.
Instead, scientists will empty it into 5-gallon metal flasks of algae and water. The algae will gorge on the treat -- filling themselves with fatty oils as they double in size every six hours, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its July issue.
Down the hall, past a rainbow of algae strains arrayed in Petri dishes, Chief Executive OfficerJonathan Wolfson shows off a gallon-size bottle of slightly viscous liquid. After drying the algae, wringing out the oil and shipping it to a refinery, this is the prize: diesel fuel that Wolfson says is chemically indistinguishable from its petroleum-based equivalent and which has already powered a Jeep Liberty and a Mercedes Benz sedan.
“We’ve produced tens of thousands of gallons, and by the end of 2010, I hope I can say we’ve produced hundreds of thousands,” Wolfson, 39, says. “In the next two years, we should get the cost down to the $60 to $80-a-barrel range.”
At that price, Solazyme’s algae fuel would compete with $80-a-barrel oil.
In Japan, the U.K. and the U.S., green energy advocates and some well-heeledinvestors are obsessed with perfecting a way to turn the scum that coats ponds, lakes and fish tanks into a substitute for gasoline, jet fuel and diesel.
Huge Payoff?
Algae, mostly single-cell photosynthetic organisms that usually elicit a “yuck,” can yield 30 times more oil than crops such as soy. Algal oil doesn’t need much processing before it can power a car, truck or jet engine, says Matt Carr, a policy director at theBiotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington-based advocate for biotech companies.
Algae have advantages over producers of other so-called biofuels. They don’t compete for land with a crop that feeds people and animals. Corn-based ethanol, the first viable biofuel, produces just two-thirds as much energy as gasoline and corrodes pipelines and car engines, says Anthony Marchese, a mechanical engineering professor atColorado State University, who is taking part in a $48 million Department of Energyresearch project.
Supporters say algae overcome these disadvantages while eating twice their weight in carbon dioxide, reducing what some scientists say is a leading cause of global warming.
“The potential payoff is huge,” Carr says.
Gates Jumps In
Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates and Venrock Associates, the Rockefeller family’s venture capital firm, along with the U.K.’s Wellcome Trust Ltd. and Chicago’s Arch Venture Partners, have poured $100 million into Sapphire Energy Inc., which is trying to produce gasoline from algae.
U.S. President Barack Obama talked up alternative fuels during his 2008 campaign, vowing to push for the country to use 60 billion gallons of advanced biofuels such as algae and cellulosic ethanol made from wood chips or grasses by 2030. The DOE has provided more than $185 million in grants for algal biofuels.
The U.K. government-funded Carbon Trust, which aims to trim carbon emissions, is providing 8 million pounds ($11.7 million) to nine universities for algae research. In Japan, Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s largest carmaker, and oil refiner Idemitsu Kosan Co. may join a research program with the University of Tsukuba, northeast of Tokyo, to turn algae into fuel.
Exxon’s Bet
Exxon Mobil Corp. threw its weight behind algae in July 2009. The oil giant, often a target of environmentalists for dismissing concerns about global warming, is investing $600 million.
Exxon is working with La Jolla, California-based Synthetic Genomics Inc., a company founded by J. Craig Venter, who in 2000 mapped the collection of human genes. Venter’s team is working on changing the genetic code of some algae to make it easier to extract the oil.
“We spent two years evaluating all kinds of biofuels, assessing their scalability, technical challenges, environmental impact and commercial viability,” says Emil Jacobs, Exxon Mobil’s vice president of research and development. “Algae had the best potential,” he says, noting that it doesn’t compete for land with food crops.
Operative Word
Potential is the operative word. No one has produced enough algae fuel commercially to run a family’s SUV, let alone make a dent in the more than 200 billion gallons (760 billion liters) of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel that the U.S. uses every year.
The Carbon Trust is funding research to make 70 billion liters by 2030, equivalent to 6 percent of current global diesel use. To do that, algae ponds would have to cover an area larger than Wales or New Jersey, says Ben Graziano, technology commercialization manager at Carbon Trust.
Algae proponents differ on growing methods. Open ponds, the choice of most researchers, rely on photosynthesis. Algae grow and fill with oil as they use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into sugar and chemical energy. Ponds, though, can get infested by pesky, low-oil native organisms or become the targets of microscopic aquatic creatures.
Solazyme is trying fermentation, producing its algae without light in metal vats. This requires adding sugar or other feedstock before the algae are dried and the oil extracted.
While people may curse the algae that pop up unbidden in their swimming pools, the organisms are expensive to produce commercially because electricity, water and chemicals all cost money. Today’s estimates range from $400 to $600 to produce one barrel of algae oil.
‘Billions of Dollars’
“It may take billions of dollars to set up the infrastructure,” says John Benemann, a biofuels consultant who worked on a 17-year DOE algae study. Companies would need thousands of acres of ponds, pipes to feed in carbon dioxide and fresh water and a link to refineries.
“I don’t know of an oil company that is quaking in their boots worried about algae,” Benemann says.
Chevron Corp. fits that category. Although the second- largest U.S. oil company has a deal with Solazyme to produce algae fuels and funds university research programs, it doesn’t see algae taking over the world.
“Global energy demand is going to increase 40 percent by 2030,” says Jeffrey Jacobs, vice president of Chevron Technology Ventures. “It is not feasible for biofuels to replace conventional fuels.”
Investments Climb
Silicon Valley pioneer Vinod Khosla is among the biggest investors in green technologies. His Khosla Ventures has bets on cellulosic ethanol company Range Fuels Inc. and LS9 Inc., which designs microbes to produce nonpolluting biofuels.
Khosla says algae fuel is a pipe dream.
“We looked at two dozen algae business plans and have not found one that was a viable plan,” says Khosla, speaking from his Menlo Park, California, office.
Ever since the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries shocked the world with embargoes and price increases in the 1970s, companies and investors have searched for fossil- fuel alternatives.
In 1978, with drivers fuming over gasoline lines, the Aquatic Species Program, part of the DOE under President Jimmy Carter, studied making diesel-like fuel from the lipids that algae accumulate in their cells. After 17 years, the group concluded that algae couldn’t compete with oil that then averaged about $20 a barrel. President Bill Clintonclosed the program in 1996.
Congressional Mandates
Now, green-energy advocates say climate change makes the quest for petroleum alternatives imperative. In the first quarter of 2010, venture investments in clean energy jumped 83 percent from a year earlier to $1.9 billion, San Francisco- basedCleantech Group LLC says.
“With a focus on global warming, we are seeing investors showing interest in a broad range of clean technologies,” Cleantech President Sheeraz Haji says.
The U.S. Congress wants to speed the switch from fossil fuels. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 calls for refiners to use 36 billion gallons of biofuels in gasoline blends by 2022. That’s triple the current amount, which is mostly in the form of corn-based ethanol. Fifteen billion gallons would be starch-based ethanol, with the rest from sources such as algae and switch grass.
The U.S. military, which accounts for about 80 percent of the federal government’s energy demand, is exploring biofuels after spending more than $20 billion on jet, diesel and other fuels for its fleets in 2008.
Cutting Oil Imports
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s venture arm and the outfit that’s credited with developing the Internet, is funding a $35 million research program to find a way to make jet fuel from algae that costs less than $3 a gallon by 2013.
“The attraction of algae is that it fills the need to develop renewable energies and cut foreign oil imports,” says George Santana, director of research at Greener Dawn Corp., a San Diego-based firm that promotes renewable energy. “To replace foreign oil, you need to fill up your tank with biofuels.”
Exxon Mobil says it may take as long as 10 years before any algae biofuel reaches motorists. That hasn’t stopped the company from covering itself in green colors.
Soon after signing the deal with Synthetic Genomics, Exxon ran ads featuring a scientist named Joe Weissman: “We are making a big commitment to finding out just how algae can help meet the fuel demands of the world,” Weissman tells the TV viewer.
‘Pays Off Politically’
While Exxon’s $600 million investment is the largest of its kind in algae, it’s infinitesimal for a company that brought in $301.5 billion in revenue last year and plans to spend $28 billion on oil wells, floating platforms and refineries this year.
“For Exxon, the algae bet pays off politically; it helps their public relations and their image,” says Robert Bryce, author of “Gusher of Lies” (PublicAffairs, 2008), a book about the ethanol industry.
Philip New, who heads the alternative fuels unit at BP Plc, says investments in algae’s potential may never be recouped. BP is investing in ways to make ethanol from sugars, which he says offer greater promise.
“We looked at algae and the numbers do not make economic sense,” New says. “Ours is not a greenwash.”
Exxon spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman says the company’s investment and partnership with Synthetic Genomics show Exxon is serious about algae.
BP’s Oil Spill
BP, which is at the center of a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, has run ads touting its alternative energy investments. In 2000, the London-based company changed its logo to a green, yellow and white sunburst.
BP has poured $500 million into a joint venture called Tropical Bioenergia SA to produce Brazilian ethanol from sugar cane. It has also invested $112.5 million in Verenium Corp.of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to research producing ethanol from agricultural waste and saw grass.
Netherlands oil giant Royal Dutch Shell Plc has investments in ethanol made from sugar cane. In February, it entered a $12 billion joint venture with Brazil’s Cosan SA Industria & Comercio and plans to produce 5 billion liters a year. (For a story on working conditions in Brazil’s cane fields, see “Ethanol’s Deadly Brew,” November 2007.)
“Second-generation biofuels may take another decade,” says Luis Scoffone, Shell’s vice president of alternative energies. “Cost of production will be a factor in determining which technologies win.”
‘Expensive to Produce’
Even so, Shell hasn’t written off algae. It’s building a research plant with HR BioPetroleum Inc. on Hawaii’s Kona coast near commercial algae farms. Here, oblong ponds grow algae for nutritional supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids and protein powders.
Although advocates say that most algae need only sunlight, carbon dioxide and water -- including saltwater -- to grow, the reality is more complicated. Algae are less productive below 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit). In the heat, the organisms require constant refreshing. Most ponds have electric paddles to circulate the algae-filled water.
“Open ponds need a lot of water, a lot of electricity,” says Robert Rapier, chief technology officer at Kamuela, Hawaii- based Mercia International, a bioengineering holding company. “Algae are expensive to produce.”
Enormous Projects
Jason Pyle, CEO of Gates-backed Sapphire Energy in San Diego, says the challenges of algae are like those in farming: increasing yields and protecting crops from pests. Sapphire plans to build a 300-acre (120-hectare) plant in New Mexico, which will be completed in 2013. The company says it’s a first step toward producing 1 billion gallons of diesel and jet fuel by 2025.
“These are large projects and take enormous amounts of time and capital,” Pyle, 38, says.
Not far away, Exxon Mobil is building a research facility at Synthetic Genomics headquarters. By the end of next year, the oil company plans a 10-acre site filled with ponds and clear containers called bioreactors, intended to speed up growth. The key is getting different algae strains to work beyond the lab, Exxon’s Jacobs says. To commercially produce algae-based fuel will require billions of dollars.
“If we can pull it off, it will have a significant impact,” Jacobs says.
Freshman Dreams
About 500 miles to the north, Solazyme cofounders Wolfson and Dillon, 39, are sidestepping the challenges of algae ponds. The pair met in 1989 at Emory Universityin Atlanta and discovered mutual interests in the outdoors and the environment. During that freshman year, Dillon, who was studying biology, and Wolfson, a political science undergrad, agreed to form a biotech company one day.
That off-the-cuff promise began to take shape in 2003. The two raised money from friends, family, New York-based Harris & Harris Group Inc. and Berkeley, California-based Roda Group and started growing algae in open ponds. They wound up with little to show.
“We tried direct photosynthesis but couldn’t figure out how we were ever going to take it to a commercial scale,” Wolfson says. “There were too many problems.”
The two went back to investors. This time, they focused on algae that grow in the dark, as in swamps. Standing in front of a whiteboard, Wolfson explains the process in layman’s terms:
“We put algae in a tank and feed them sugar, such as sugar cane waste, and they make oil and we take the oil out. There’s a lot of science involved, but it’s a bit like making beer.”
‘Green Sludge’
Every few months, Wolfson’s team mails 10-milliliter vials containing millions of frozen algae cells to one of three plants for fermenting. At the Cherokee Pharmaceuticals LLCsite in Riverside, Pennsylvania, which used to make antibiotics and food additives, scientists mix a teaspoonful of algae stock with water, cellulosic waste like the bagasse in Dillon’s beaker and such trace elements as potassium.
The tanks keep the brew at about 30 to 40 degrees Celsius. After a few days, there are enough cells to fill a 75,000-liter fermentation tank. By making modifications that Wolfson declines to discuss, the algae convert the sugar into fatty lipids.
“We end up with a green sludge that has a high percentage of oil content -- over 75 percent,” Wolfson says. He won’t divulge how Solazyme extracts the oil except to say that the sludge goes into standard plant-oil extraction equipment similar to that used for soy or canola oil.
‘Silver Buckshot’
Solazyme, which has raised $76 million from VCs such as New York-based Braemar Energy Ventures and Menlo Park-based Lightspeed Venture Partners, has a contract with the U.S. Navy to provide 1,500 gallons of jet fuel. It also received $8.5 million to deliver 20,000 gallons of fuel for Navy ships.
Wolfson says he needs $150 million to build a commercial plant to produce 100 million gallons a year. He predicts that algal oil will cost $60 to $80 a barrel within 12 to 24 months.
“We don’t have a business in fuel until we are at parity with fossil fuels,” he says. “There is no silver bullet for our problem of replacing fossil fuels; maybe a silver buckshot.”
Fans of algae are betting that the tiny organism can produce giant strides for going green.
To contact the reporter on this story: Kambiz Foroohar at
Last Updated: June 3, 2010 00:01 EDT