• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Title

First, you play the Shell game

Sustainability, as any cause, has its wild-eyed fundamentalists. True believers who know, in their souls, the one true path to nirvana and the single step necessary to get us there. I'm not one of those -- if anything, I'm an assertive agnostic on how we get there from here. I just know we've got to make the journey and that there will be lots of steps along the way.

March 19, 2009
 
 

Sustainability, as any cause, has its wild-eyed fundamentalists. True believers who know, in their souls, the one true path to nirvana and the single step necessary to get us there. I'm not one of those -- if anything, I'm an assertive agnostic on how we get there from here. I just know we've got to make the journey and that there will be lots of steps along the way.

That said, I strongly suspect that the logical model for long-term sustainability is one which localizes as much production as possible. Localization, in terms of creating something where, and in quantities appropriate for how, it's going to be consumed. Many small electrical producers, given the fact that there are many small electricity consumers. Food grown close to where food gets eaten. Managable scale, with all the advantages that accompany it.

But what we want in the long term often isn't what we need (or can get) in the short term. You don't go into a sustainability shift with the infrastructure you want, you go into it with the infrastructure you have. And our infrastructure is designed to support large-scale production, often far removed from the place of consumption.

Two examples of technology shifts which are useful and viable in the short term, whether or not they fit ideal long-term scenarios:

First, there's the recent announcement from Shell Oil that they're effectively getting out of the wind, hydro and solar businesses, and will focus their efforts toward sustainability on cellulosic ethanol. The key phrase, to my mind, is that Shell sees its core business as "providing fuels, logistics, trading and branding". Shell distributors, traders, dealers and customers can be switched from liquid fossil fuels to liquid ethanol far more easily than to wind, hydro or solar power, all of which come most readily as electricity. You can think about driving down to your neighborhood Shell station and filling up with biofuel. It's harder to think about pulling up to the pump for a tankful of electric. And why wouldn't you just fill up (plug in) at home? And how can Shell lock up supplies of sun and wind the way they've locked in supplies of crude oil? Biofuels are just a better fit for their established business model. Lots of schools are actively engaged in designing production processes for cellulosic ethanol -- with luck, a number of endowments will get healthy from the resulting patent revenues.

As regards filxed-location combustion, North Carolina State is investing a lot of effort in a process called torrefaction. Think of it as "charcoal making, light". Low-quality wood gets heated under controlled conditions, and turns into a suitable substitute for coal. It's not a particularly new technology, but what NC State has done is to design a process which is portable (so can be readily located near the raw materials) and largely self-sustaining. The wood loses most of its weight but very little of its energy content. Once converted, it can be efficiently transported (by trucks burning cellulosic ethanol?) to existing coal-fired power plants (which would require only minor modification). I'm sure there are issues of scale, but aren't there always?

What I like about both of these shifts is that they can provide meaningful short-term benefit (substituting current-cycle carbon for fossil carbon; consuming junk wood and (potentially) pulpwood, thereby restoring the economic viability of paper recycling) while requiring only minimal adjustment to the business models of some major industry segments.

Why is making nice with major industries important in the short term? Because if we don't, they'll screw up the process for all of us. More on that in another post. Right now, we need to take the first steps on that journey. We're already behind any reasonable schedule, so whatever helps us to move quickly is what we need to be doing.

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