Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “algaculture”

Why Can’t We Get Off Oil?

Last Thursday, Roger Ingalls wrote a post about two ideas, one general and one specific. The specific idea was about using farm subsidies to develop “algaculture” in order to move us toward freedom from foreign oil. Good idea. But the general idea is much more important – that of changing and prioritizing how our government works (including things like agricultural subsidies) to adapt to an evolving set of realities.

As I was reading Roger’s post, I suddenly thought, “Why isn’t this already happening?” The answer is simple: Power.

It’s easy to see that money largely controls politics, but the situation runs deeper than that. Our politics are controlled by cemented-in power structures – not just any money, but the money and power that have been in the same, willing hands long enough to build structures of self-protection.

What this means is that our government is influenced most not by solid logic, but by entities protecting their own interests. This is the reason that big oil and big coal oppose solar and other renewable energy development with such fervor.

A long time ago, I promised Alon (the main author of this blog) that I would explain why oil companies are looking forward with copious amounts of drool to the day when oil is really scarce. Scarcity of a commodity which is “necessary” or at least very difficult to substitute for makes the price go up.

You might think that sure, the price goes up, but there’s less oil to sell, so it sort of evens out. But the oil companies know that, if alternatives aren’t developed, when oil gets scarce they will have the world by the you-know-whats. They will be able to spend much less on producing oil (and gasoline and everything else that comes from it) while charging absolutely incredible prices – prices that will support unimaginable profits.

People often point to the relative inefficiency of alternative energy sources at the present moment. Right now, much more energy is available from a dollar’s worth of fossil fuel than from any renewable source. This is because of the relative inefficiency of present technology in converting solar, or wind, etc. into usable electricity, in addition to the investment needed to make the conversion possible at all.

But it will be unbelievably expensive to build wind turbine towers, for example, when oil costs $500 per barrel. If we don’t do a lot of the “heavy lifting” now, while powering the development of alternatives and the experimentation that must precede it with “cheap” oil, we will soon be at the mercy (or lack thereof) of the oil companies. 

So, is Roger right? I don’t know if even Roger knows just how right Roger is. Algaculture is by no means the complete solution to our energy problems, but what Roger has brought up here is the very future of civilization. Think I’m exaggerating? As of just about today, the world’s population is hitting 7 Billion people, over half of which live in urban settings (82% in the U.S.). Our food supply chains are usually located far from population centers and require huge amounts of energy for transport, not to mention many other aspects of production.

This means that the prices of foods will skyrocket, even while the real earnings of the middle (and lower) class fall. I’m not sure what that world will look like if this trend is realized, but you can bet it won’t be pretty.

It’s not just about the cool prospect of not bowing to Saudi Arabia anymore. No. It’s about the cool prospect that our kids might be able to eat in 50 years. Above all, we need to cut down our ridiculously wasteful energy usage, but we also need to make investments in the energy sources that will still be around when the oil gets scarce.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Algaculture: Farming Worth Subsidizing

Last week I blogged about farm subsidies and how they limit variety, make people fat and destroy the free-market economy. It wasn’t a very popular post so I assume most people don’t care to dig into the complexities of this subject. However, it is a very important issue so I’m going to discuss it again but with the focus of how I believe our tax dollars should be spent.

Instead of subsidizing grains, corn and other carbohydrate crops that get over-processed into unhealthy foods, we should fund farming methods that can efficiently turn plant life into alternative fuels. And I’m not talking about the inefficient use of corn to make ethanol which is a crazy waste of food and energy.

We should subsidize algaculture or algae farming. More than 50% of algae’s composition – by weight – is lipid oil which burns cleaner and more efficiently than fossil fuel based petroleum. Once the oil is removed from the algae, the leftovers can be turned into fertilizer and feedstock for animals.

To eliminate our reliance on imported oil, we would need approximately 50 million acres of algae farming compared to billions of acres of corn to produce ethanol. Algae is a much better crop choice for making alternative liquid fuels.

Can you imagine all the problems we could solve by using our farm subsidies wisely? We could eliminate our reliance on foreign oil. We would no longer have to fight wars in the Middle East. There would be a new farming community with massive job creation as well as support industries to refine algae oils. In addition, there would be less unhealthy products in our food system because high fructose corn syrup and grain-fed beef would no longer be priced below true market value.

I encourage you to learn more about farm subsidies and algae bio-fuels. We could have a healthier, greener and safer society by changing how we spend our tax dollars.

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Roger Ingalls is well traveled and has seen the good and bad of many foreign governments. He hopes his blogging will encourage readers to think more deeply about the American political system and its impact on US citizens and the international community.

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