Friday, May 16, 2008

Corn, Ethanol, Farms, Food and the Logic of the Granary

First, a recommended podcast for that wavering ostrich of yours. George Kenney interviews Frank Schaeffer, whose memoir, Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of it Back, tells of a journey from helping found the evangelical right, to enthusiastic support for Barack Obama. One perspective that I also urge - recognizing the profound commitment made by our military men and women vs. the way they've been despicably betrayed by the Bushite Cabal. Ironically, Schaeffer sees deep parallels between the Obama-led youth movement and the best instincts of those who sign up to serve.

Speaking of ostriches, let's look past the struggles for the Democratic nomination at the big picture, rehearsing what we’ll say in the General. Care for another look at my own two sets of suggestions? First, a few neglected policy planks that the Dems have missed so far (some of them sure winners), and second a fully-fleshed-out list of arguments to split that honest-but-reluctant conservative uncle of yours away from a movement that has thoroughly betrayed him, couched in terms a conservative might understand.

And now... our feature:

Corn, Ethanol, Farms, Food and the Logic of the Granary

In the flux of rapid change, new alliances and alignments are being made, as we speak. Some conservative pastors are reversing themselves and speaking out for "creation-tending" and action on climate change. Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups are reversing their opposition toward nuclear power, which does not emit greenhouse any gas.

Will wonders never cease? Indeed, if Barack Obama and the democrats show any agility at all (as in Mississippi, where they ran a socially conservative but still reasonable Democratic candidate to represent a deeply socially conservative district, and won) then more of these negotiated re-alignments will take place. Indeed, one can hope these are signs of a shift from the dogmatic intransigence that benighted the first decade (the Nasty Oughts) of a dour Twenty-First Century. Indeed, we may be finally shaking off a bad case of Future Shock that swept America, along with that fearsome "2" in the millennium column. We are, after all, a civilization that was founded on pragmatic negotiation and scientific progress, embracing good ideas, even when they come from another "side."

The History and Common Sense of Farm Subsidies... and What Happened

Let me try to zero in on one area where logic and pragmatism has been in stark, short supply. The whole question of farm subsidies, and how they have lately spurred a giant biofuels industry -- one that could be set up in a way that makes sense... but for the simplemindedness of both sides. A remarkable lack of insight has been displayed, both by supporters and by those opposed to biofuels... leaving in place a scam, instead of a process that could have worked well.

First a little history. Remember Joseph? He of the technicolor coat, who wandered into Egypt and interpreted a Pharaoh's dream? Seven fat cows, followed by seven skinny ones, forecast a time of bumper harvests, and then a time of devastating famine. That is, unless sufficient stocks were bought and stored away. Which, forewarned, the Pharaoh did, ultimately thanking Joseph for saving the nation.

Historians can now verify that the Egyptian state used to do this sort of thing, quite often, in a routine and simple way. Whenever crops grew abundant and grain prices were low, the government bought and stored grain, both assisting farmers and creating a stockpiled reserve. When supplies were thin and prices ran high, the caches were opened and stores sold, softening price swings, letting both farmers and consumers have a little predictability in life. Any resulting profit to the government helped to maintain to recoup the large investment in constructing granaries

A simple system. Everyone benefited. Farmers weren't bankrupted by too-good harvest years. The people weren't starved and taken advantage of in lean times. Taxpayers got their money's worth. The state's useful role paid for itself.

Now, there were a few special circumstances that helped Pharoanic Egypt master this trick. The dry climate allowed storage of grain for extended periods, for example. Also, there are a few things that simpleminded kingdoms do really well, such as repeating the same working pattern, over and over. Pivotally, those ancient farmers did not have a massively powerful voting bloc, able to sway government policy and alter the arrangement in shortsighted ways. A failure mode of later, more sophisticated nations.

Take the US Great Depression, a time when urban populations went hungry, while farmers poured excess milk into sewers, because the price was too low to be worth shipping. Under the New Deal, various methods were tried, for helping rural populations hard beset by market ructions... as well as dust bowls, foreclosures, bank failures, disease and bad land mismanagement. Some of the solutions -- e.g. roads, schools, electrification, subsidized post, phone and internet -- seem proper tasks for government, even from a conservative perspective. (Now, at least.)

Notably, urban taxpayers never demanded payback for a cent of all that infrastructural support -- a tradition that continues today, as a river of tax dollars continues to flow from Blue to Red. Nor should they. (Nor should rural folk brag about how "independent" they are.)

How did Farm Policy Leave Common Sense Behind?

Infrastructure is an easy decision, but how to damp the swings in market price? Of course, the most direct approach for achieving rural assistance, and the one that involves the most market-meddling, has been direct farm subsidy payments and price supports. And, way back in the 1930s, stage one looked pretty darn traditional. The government often simply bought up extra food and gave it to poor people, elsewhere. Some of the grain and milk got turned into storable items, like flour and cheese, to act as a national reserve for a few years, before getting recycled through food stamps and school lunch programs. And, yes, the government bought grains when they were cheap and sold them later, when the price was high. All very logical. Almost Egyptian.

Only progress follows progress. With all that education and infrastructure and investment, farmers got a whole lot better at their business. There came a time when US agriculturalists could not be stopped from producing too much! Domestically, at least, there was no longer a "famine" side of the cycle, for the government to dump its stockpiles into. And sure, the government tried making this a win-win by sending massive amounts overseas, as foreign aid. But, while some of this was genuinely life-saving, we now know that a result was -- just as often -- to undermine local agricultural systems and destroy a developing nation's ability to feed itself.

So the idea arose to simply pay farmers not to produce on some of their land. On occasion this has been done, in some countries, by purchasing some of the farmland outright, leaving it fallow or converting it to other uses, even parks. Farmers benefit from higher prices or collateral value for their land. Farmers also get higher prices for their crops, since less land is in production. And the taxpayers get something in return for this help. They get that land. It can be banked, just like that Egyptian grain. Only much better preserved and with ecological benefits, too,

But then, we are a nation where political power was deliberately titled toward rural states. And as one might expect, there came pressure for change. It began to occur to clever people that sometimes governments can be arm-twisted into giving, without getting anything in return. (After all, look at the dams and highways and schools.) So, polemical tricks were used. For the government to buy land and surplus produce was "socialistic." On the other hand, simply paying farmers to keep their land, but not to grow anything on it, well, that somehow made sense and was not at all socialist.

This is an old, old argument, and I am neither qualified, nor interested in getting down to the actual fight over farm supports, per se. Or the way giant agribusinesses now collect the lion's share of subsidies that were designed to preserve family farms. Or the way opponents of socialism nevertheless have managed to rationalize demanding that the taxpayers' government never get anything direct and tangible, in return. (Socializing and externalizing costs while privatizing profits.)

But note how the second half of the cycle is now almost completely missing. When the government stabilized low prices by buying something tangible (grain or land) it acquired a tangible reserve that it could then use in emergencies or sell when prices were high. But, today, there are no large federal stocks of food pouring forth to ease the skyrocketing supermarket prices, nor stocks of reserved land being offered to young, suburban couples to try their hand, as new farming pioneers, Nor are the direct-payment subsidies being cut back, now that floods of profit are pouring into agribusiness. It is no longer cycle balancing. It is an entitlement.

Indeed, one sees some very "non-egyptian" things going on... like a US government hurrying to fill the National Strategic Petroleum Reserve with high priced oil. The same government that (does anybody at all recall?) sold out of the reserve, years ago, when prices were low.


Good question. First, some more historical perspective, provided by economic analyst John Mauldin:

North America has experienced great weather for the last 18 consecutive years, which, combined with other improvements in agriculture, has resulted in abundant crops. According to Donald Coxe, chief strategist of Harris Investment Management , you have to go back 800 years to find a period of such favorable weather for so long a time. Yet food stocks in corn, wheat, rice, etc. are dangerously low. We are just one bad weather season from a potential worldwide food disaster. And Dennis Gartman has been pointing out almost daily how far behind US farmers are in getting their corn crops planted, due to bad weather:

“… the corn crop really is behind schedule. Corn is not like wheat. Wheat can survive drought; it can survive cold; wheat, as we were taught by our mentor, Mr. Melvin Ford, many years ago, is a weed. It is an amazing, resilient plant. But corn is temperamental; it needs rain when it needs rain; it needs dry conditions when it needs dry conditions. It needs to not be hit by early season frost, or it will suffer, and it needs a rather archly set number of days to grow. Each day lost at the front end of the planting/growing season puts pressure upon the corn plant to finish its job before the autumn frosts, and puts increased soybean acreage and decreased corn acreage before us. Meanwhile, ranchers are reducing their herds, as they cannot afford to feed them due to high grain prices.The same thing is happening with chickens. This means sometime this fall supplies of meat of all types are going to be reduced. Maybe someone will point out that using corn to produce ethanol has the unwanted and unintended consequence of driving up food prices all over the world.

As usual, economic wisdom from one of the best analysts in our generation. So, then, let's bring in ethanol.

In recent years, a heavy and generous federal subsidy has created a vast corn-to-ethanol industry whose effects are causing a lot of public debate. Environmentalists claim that it takes _more than a gallon of imported oil to actually create a gallon of ethanol fuel. The greenhouse gas benefits are negligible and possibly negative. According to Mauldin, the price and energy balance would be much better if we imported Brazillian sugar cane, which seems made for ethanol production. But farmers in Idaho apparently have a veto over anything sensible like that.
Of course, never mind the blatant silliness of pouring food into our gas tanks, while poor people around the world riot over skyrocketing prices and we, here, feel a sharp pinch in the store.
Here we see democracy at its almost-worst. (Wherein hypocritical conservatives who keep citing the infamous "largesse" diss upon the common citizen, are actually by far the worst offenders. Just Google "democracy largesse" to scan this calumny.)

The entrenched special interests are vast, so don't expect them to enter into negotiations to find a logical way out of this mess. Indignant rationalizations abound, and everybody seems convinced that their own version of government-suckling is not socialism. It is patriotism.

The Right Way to Apply Hard Liquor...

But now I plan to surprise you.
I will speak up not only for government price intervention to help farmers, but also for subsidized biofuel alcohol!

Though not as it is being done today.

Perhaps it is time to take a look back at the Egyptians of old, and go back to the root of the problem, so to speak. Farmers (especially giant agribusinesses) do not deserve automatic subsidies as some kind of birthright. On the other hand, the ancients were onto something and we are all better off if farmers are cushioned from wild market swings and get the kind of predictability that can let them invest in what is, after all, a business vital to us all.

Back when the New Dealers and Great Society folks tried to balance the cycles by buying cheap-excess bumper crops and storing for lean days, they ran into a problem. A vast, continental nation can only store up so much grain and cheese. In part, the move to simple cash grants came out of despair over how to do the job effectively, the Egyptian way.

But here is where alcohol comes in! Because alcohol can be stored. In fact, it can be stocked away beautifully.

What was done pathetically under Lyndon Johnson... turning excess farm production into mountains of wasted cheese... can now be done logically and efficiently.... if we make biofuel ethanol a seasonal or occasional way to absorb and store, and later use, excess grain surges.

Let the subsidy go away. It insane and the money could be far better used making up for fifteen years of deliberately sabotaged research into energy independence.

Instead, let the taxpayers buy corn when its price is low, convert it into storable form, and sell the alcohol when the price seems right.

We need to stop thinking of ethanol as an alternative to imported oil. That's just silly and a crutch for those diverting us from real solutions for energy independence. Nevertheless, ethanol can be viewed as a wonderful way to store the produce of America's fertile fields, in a form that will be easily convertible, at some future date, into fuel, or money... and thus even back into food.


Stefan Jones said...

If you shorten this just a LITTLE, it would make a good Kos diary entry.

There was a fascinating story on All Things Considered yesterday. The Heinz company is breeding a sweeter tomato for its ketchup, so that they won't need to buy so much expensive corn syrup!

I highly recommend the cheeky, informative documentary King Corn. It ran on PBS a few weeks back.

Stefan Jones said...

Former Republican Senator Lincoln Chaffe:

The GOP Abuses the Environment at its Own Peril

David Brin said...

Over on Kos a guy pointed out--

"Turning grain into alcohol for storage and transportation was what got the Scot-Irish in trouble!

They couldn't transport large harvests of grain to market and they only smart thing to do was to make it into alchohal which could be sold locally, transported more easily and served as a form of money. => The Whiskey Rebellion!

Talk about returning to our roots!

Jester said...

The Whisky Rebellion, put down by the biggest distiller of rye whiskey in the New World.

Sometimes, I think Jefferson actually read Smith, and Washington just read a brief review.

Dr. Brin -

One of the things left out of these discussions about the idiocy of farm policy is that nearly all the corn we now grow is GM, and the EU doesn't want our GM corn OR beef fed with it.

We screwed ourselves out of our wealthiest export market.

Robert L said...

What a super comment, this is one of the most sensible you've ever written!

On the GM food issues, I think the Europeans will be changing their tune soon enough, much the way the environmentalists are starting to realize that nuclear power is not the big bad wolf.


Jester said...

Oh, the EU is letting a lot of it in now, and just requiring that it be properly labeled.

As far as their populace is concerned, it might as well be labled "Contains Lead".

I don't really blame them, to be honest. I say that as someone with no catagorical opposition to the concept of genetically engineered crops.

They're right. They haven't been suffeciently studied.

That doesn't make them safe, or dangerous, btw.

It means both we and our potential markets would benefit from proper testing.

Tony Fisk said...

Interesting idea (and do I detect a certain slyness in your continual references to the grandeur of *ancient* Egypt for this model?)

The lack of stockpiles possibly stems from the worldwide movement to 'just in time' production and 'zero inventory' practices: it costs money to store goods (heh! As does that not immediately profitable infrastructure nonsense!)

There are, as many people have pointed out, far better crops to use for biofuels than corn that don't impact on food production as much, but this seems a pragmatic bit of damage control to a somewhat retarded initiative.

One niggle I do have stems from this comment:

Environmentalists claim that it takes _more than a gallon of imported oil to actually create a gallon of ethanol fuel.

If this is so, then does it make sense to convert the excess corn at all, or is the cost already incurred by its growth?

GM and nuclear: I agree with Jester: while they're not as dangerous as is popularly believed, I can quite see why people don't want them being imposed without choice, and I don't think they really have any chance of being accepted until choice is permitted.

Travc said...

Interesting idea. Though I will certainly write more a bit later, a few short tidbits to chew on.

Biofuels are not big part of the recent raise in grain prices. A few weeks ago the BBC ran a report mentioning that (over the last year I believe) international market prices have gone up by:
Corn ~ 30%
Rice - 80% (or something like that)
Wheat - 130%

That pattern says something important, since current droughts in Australia and I think Central Asia are very significant for wheat.

A bit of biofuels good news: People in power are starting to use the term 'second generation biofuels'. Corn ethanol is generation 0.5 really.

Anonymous said...
provides another point of view on the issue of nuclear power.

Tony Fisk said...

Australia is a primary wheat exporter, and its wheat production last year was very low.

While the drought appears to be over for the moment, the world wheat harvest is about to get hit with another whammy: a new form of rust fungus has been spreading out of Africa faster than predicted.

Anonymous said...

Travc, did that BBC report also mention the acreage converted to corn (from wheat and other crops)? Last week I read a report in the New York TIme (or Washington Post, but I think it was the NYT) about how there are various shortages in agricultural commodities as farmers convert to corn.

Not saying that there aren't other factors in the recent rise in food prices*, but subsidizing the conversion of corn to fuel has exacerbated the problem.

And it's not doing much for America's image overseas; ex-pat friends tell me that the "one tank of gas for their SUV is one year of food for my child" meme is well established. Add that to the insistence on free access to markets and no government subsidies (but only in the Third World) and you've got a lot of simmering resentment.

*End of an 18-year climate optimum, rising fuel prices, increased meat consumption…

Did You Know? said...

very good blog.. happy day!!!

occam's comic said...

OK this idea really needs some CITOKATE to improve it.

If, what you want to do is pay farmers to produce a storable energy source, Liquor from corn is a pretty inefficient way to achieve your goal.

Instead, pay farmers to grow native grasses and turn them into charcoal. This way you don't need to use fertilizer and your water needs will be reduced. The infrastructure needed to do turn biomass into charcoal and store it is relatively simple and easily decentralized. I think you would agree charcoal makes a really good energy storage medium: high energy content, doesn't biodegrade, easily transported and stored.

Travc said...

re: anonymous's pointing out conversion of fields from other crops (wheat for example) to corn in the US due to biofuel demand.

[Aside: Please consider making an account so we may refer to you by a consistent name.]

Yeah, that has happened to some extent, but it is of strictly marginal effect on big crops. It is also a really dumb move in retrospect given the market prices.

A potentially more significant effect on prices is speculation.

I intentionally left out a lot of details just for simplicity. However, the key fact is that wheat and rice prices have inflated much more than corn... which indicates the simplistic 'biofuels are to blame' line is not all there is to it (and I would argue not even a very significant effect).


Back to Dr Brin's top post...

There are a few obvious problems to mention with the 'store excess ag production as ethanol'.

1) Production of ethanol from grains is not a very efficient way to make ethanol.

2) For ethanol to be really in demand, a significant proportion our devices which consume fuel must be able to run on ethanol. If this were the case, a large and stable supply of the fuel would be in demand... Widespread use of flex-fuel engines may address this, but we have to solve the problem of where the primary fuels to power them will come from.

3) Storing grain isn't very difficult. A bit of investment and we could store it significantly longer than we currently can.

4) There are other, arguable more useful, products with very long storage capability which can be made from grain.

5) The memories of 'government cheese' most of us have are a bit misleading at this point. Most dairy production is basically 'indoor' now, and not subject to the sorts of 'act of god' production/price volatility (besides the costs of inputs such as feed, which many industries have). We should constrain the discussion to staple grains.

6) Supporting/promoting grain ethanol is destructive at this moment IMO. Other biofuel production methods need to take the stage in a big way, and grain sugars ethanol is getting in the way and muddying up the waters. It has served a purpose of creating a bit of demand and showing the viability / profitability of growing fuels... Now we need to be focusing on better ways to do it instead of spending resources scaling up something that is obsolete and ultimately probably not even a net win.

Travc said...

PS: I should also mention that the 'best' biofuels tech does not impose the 'food or fuel' question at all.

Cellulostic ethanol made from ag waste or grasses grown on marginal lands is very promising.

There is also gasification of biomass (again using waste and/or grasses), which produces a clean burning gas and also biochar (basically charcoal). Biochar can be burnt; or even better, just mixed into soils to sequester the carbon in a surprisingly stable/long-term way and even improve the soil.

(I ran across biochar in a recent Science, but here is an ACS news item on biochar that seems good. Google 'biochar' is quite fruitful.)

Travc said...

A bit of nomenclature that folks may find useful (I think I first saw it in an Economist article of all places):

Red biotech : growing medial products (or methods which derive them from growing stuff).

Green biotech : GM/breeding and generally high-tech methods to increase food production

White biotech : Growing or producing from biological processes industrial/material inputs. Biofuels are just a subset.

White biotech is going to be a really big deal in the near future IMO.

Tony Fisk said...

Occam and travc, I know that corn isn't the best crop for biofuels. I think people are currently in the 'oops!' phase of correcting that mistake, and I *think* Brin is simply trying to suggest a way to lessen the waste, given that corn is currently being grown. If this idea gets adopted, I suspect the farmers will figure out the rest for themselves.

Genius said...

People need to keep in mind Biofuels are NOT a global warming solution - there just isn't enough farmable land on earth and there is barely enough food as it is anyway (we are straining all sorts of resources like fish stocks).

Its a good idea to try to get them right and use every tool at our disposal to protect the environment but don't let it distract you from other solutions.

As to GM and nuclear : I can see why people might not want them... I also can see why people might not want to cut back on fossil fuels too - but that doesn't mean I should treat them with anything other than scorn.

I think if the EU really wants to go green and it takes other countries with them then more fool them (I see GM as being very much the future). But the EU has large agricultural subsidies anyway so trying to export agricultural products to them may not be very feasible anyway.

Jester said...

GM is, without a doubt, a part of the future.

From the begining of the last century, synthetic compounds used to treat illness and preserve foods have been a massive boon, but that doesn't mean we allow them to be marketed without intensive study and testing (notable exceptions apply over the last several years).

So far, GM crops have not given us increased yeilds. Many of them have been produced by Monsanto, a company with such well tested hits as the "safe" defoliant Agent Orange, a broad range of "safe" dioxins, "safe" pcbs, and 56 SuperFund sites.

More than a little government oversite is warranted before bringing new GM crops to market, and any remotely intelligent consumer with options would insist on proper testing and full disclosure before eating plants containing bacterial genes which produce chemicals toxic to insects.

There, on the face of it, is the true insanity of the governments deriliction in it's duty to protect citizens - those chemicals, if they were to be applied by a crop duster instead of produced by the plant as a result of genetic manipulation, would be subjected to prolonged and rigorous testing.

Ernieg said...

I see You Dr. Brin are not straying from your primary source of income.

To wit the shoemaker sticking to his last.

Fiction put Forth as history and economics.

The product of the bovine critter.

HarCohen said...

Take note although I lost track of the source of the information, some of the latest ethanol plants are being built to use coal fuel. Earlier ones were natural gas. It puts different variables into the environmental and cost equations.

I agree with about everything written. It had occurred to me we more often use Roman models (Bread & Circuses in this case) rather than those of previous ages.

Corn and biomass ethanol is a means of extending current transport use. I am keeping my fingers crossed that government support and subsidy will peak when military strategic fuel requirements can be satisfied. (Yes. Please exclude heavy tanks and most of the Navy. I don't think they are going to operate on ethanol.)

Going back to the initial comment, Heinz may also want to invest in the titanium dioxide photosynthetic properties research. Heinz might end up with a glass bottle. Fill it up with unsweetened dry kethcup (reducing the transportation costs to minimum) and water, then expose to light for twelve hours. Or they might sell us the GM Heinz tomato plant for us to grow and put in the food processor. How many tomatoes go into 16 ounces of ketchup?

Matt DeBlass said...

Sweeter tomatoes are available, they're all from breeds that are referred to as "heirloom" tomatoes now, because they aren't as suitable for mass production (my boss grows 'em in his garden and brings some in for us lowly reporters on occasion, they're amazing).
The main problem so far is that tomatoes that are sweeter don't travel or store as well, but if Heinz could find a way to shorten their supply lines, I'm sure they could go with a traditional variety.
Ag business is weird, here in NJ, where it's literally crammed next to major population centers. One of the biggest disputes in my area, which I've been covering, is between industrialized farmers (ie, big greenhouses) and "food farmers"

Travc said...


The US Navy is the worlds biggest consumer of biofuels (biodiesel). That stat is a few years old, but I expect it still holds.

Also, Abrams tank crews in Iraq found they run perfectly fine on veggie oil, which is easier to find in a war zone on occasion. The Abrams tank actually has a turbine engine (same one as some helicopter models). Random, but amusing IMO fact.

I've probably posted this link here before, but it is one of my favs.
Shadow RSTV
The US army (and marines) have been working on diesel-electric hybrid ground vehicles for quite a while. This is probably their most developed model. Turns out that getting masses of fuel into a war zone is a bit of a pain in the ass.

Travc said...

As for problems with GM. Yeah, I pretty much agree with everything posted.

The biggest problem is probably lack of public confidence primarily caused by lack of sufficient, competent, and trustworthy regulation. Another big problem is the 'business models' of companies such as Monsanto.

Specifically on the sweeter tomatoes, I wonder if Heinz is trying to make the current standard tomato have a higher sugar content... or if they are just trying to knock out ethylene production.

See, the 'standard' tomatoes in the supermarket are already GM. Their ability to produce ethylene (used like a hormone to turn on the ripening process) is knocked out. Very useful, since they can be triggered to ripen after harvest, shipping, and some storage time.

Unfortunately, the variety is not particularly flavorful, but that really has nothing to do with the GM part. No reason (except maybe some patent issues) the same mod can't be made to other varieties.


Finally, when I think of biotech (and biofuels), I think less of crops in a field than big bioreactors. Bacteria (and algae) are most often going to be better suited to producing specific chemical outputs. Using ag waste (and grasses) as an inputs is all fine with me.

Hawker Hurricane said...

Gas Turbine engines as used by the M-1 Abrams tank, the Arleigh Burke class destroyer, and most helicopters can run on any liquid that burns. I've personally seen ships I was serving on run on lube oil, diesel, jet fuel, and gasoline. Running them on alchohol (ethyl or methyl) would be cake.

SteveO said...

I think biofuel from algae has real potential.

Take a look at this article from the University of new Hampshire Biodiesel group.

You can grow algae anywhere there is light, water, and nutrients - so you don't have to give up or displace food-producing acreage (maybe even in a space habitat? :) ). It doesn't have a growing season - it grows all the time so no waiting for harvest. There would be much less energy investment to get it to grow (no tractors, etc.) At least for now, algae prices would not be affected by, or affect, food price fluctuations.

The trick will be to get fuel from it, but it doesn't have to be terribly efficient from sunlight to gas tank, since the cost structure is so beneficial. You could probably figure a way to produce to biodiesel or alcohol. I mention alcohol since it could be a transition to fuel cell power, e.g. direct ethanol fuel cells.

HarCohen said...

And I was wondering if the Navy would end up going back to coal burners. I knew I was going to get into trouble with one aside or another. My military knowledge is spotty, at best.

I notice no one disputed my thoughts on where government support and subsidy might taper off. The errors must be less egregious.

Based on your remarks, I can just imagine some military parade in the future smelling of French fries or egg rolls. That's based on my experience with a bio-desiel car driving through the neighborhood on occasion.

A couple references to titanium dioxide catalysis for hydrogen production from water and methanol production from methane follow.
Nanotechnology advances the efforts to achieve artificial photosynthesis
Titanium Dioxide Key to Producing Hydrogen Fuel from Sunlight

Travc said...

I'd heard a bit about using TiO2 as a catalyst for H20 -> H2 + O2. I brushed it off as one of the things that would have be discovered long ago if it really worked, but perhaps I put too much faith in the ingenuity of people. It isn't like TiO2 is some exotic substance since it is the ubiquitous white pigment... though it wasn't til pretty recently we switch over from lead oxide.

Anyways, thanks for the links.


As for subsidies falling off when the military fuel supply is satiated... I don't think so, sorry.

These sorts of subsidies are real zombies, which brings us right back to Dr Brin's original post.

Gilmoure said...

Interesting Baltimore Sun article on prep for 40,000 troops to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nearly 40,000 troops to be deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan
Soldiers will be replacements for those coming home

By David Wood | Sun reporter
1:01 PM EDT, May 19, 2008

In a speech last week, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, acknowledged that U.S. ground forces, including the Army, Marines and National Guard, are struggling to meet the demands of the two-front war.

"We would be hard-pressed to launch a major conventional ground operation elsewhere in the world at this time," Gates told reporters in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Kimmy said...

Monsanto is one thing. American GM is generally created to improve profit margins (which I do not think is enough of a reason to switch, versus the costs).

Stands to save most of the world's malnourished children.

(anonymous, meet anonymous. please click on name/url, and you can post without signing in).

adiffer said...

I see a couple of stumbling points, but nothing a good set of staffers couldn't solve.

1. The government should purchase the alcohol, but not specify the method of it's making. The specs would speak to quality measurements, pricing rules, and delivery. If we did it the smartest way, the government could participate in the futures options market for this stuff.

2. Political resistance to the switch would arise from those who stand to loose money. If this were phased in the players would have time to convert their own infrastructure. If purchase volumes were initially set to provide a comparable income to the current subsidies the players would have little about which to complain. Later price fluctuations from the use of the futures market shouldn't be an issue either as these players can use hedging techniques found in that market.

My real issue with talk like this concerns who is going to push for it. Are we flapping our jaws here? Are we waiting for 'someone else' to do the heavy lifting? Political efforts like this require a lot of work which means pain for someone. Who does it?

Jester said...

Biodiesel has a few other advantages as a military fuel.

Spills still equal fire-hazard, but no longer equal biohazard. Still disgusting, still dangerous around open flame, but getting it in your eyes won't make you blind.

The flash point of biodiesel is nearly double that of petro diesel - and no flamable clouds of vapors form over a pool of it.

It's just flat out safer for military applications. We're almost talking about the difference between gasoline and petro-diesel here.

Maitnance demands are lessened, as Biodiesel doesn't cause varnish to build up in lines and injectors.

HarCohen said...

How much corn is enough?

I thought I heard a newscaster last night that corn ethanol production would consume 40% of domestic corn production.

I googled some figures today. Roughly 3 out of every 13 bushels will go to ethanol production in the 2007-2008 marketing season.

This already exceeds the amount exported. It seems we have hardly begun and the future is now.

Athena Andreadis said...

If anyone wants to see all these arguments expanded (and very eloquently and persuasively, too), read Richard Manning's Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization.

David Pollard gives a good synopsis of it in his Salon blog, The Devil's Bargain. Manning himself wrote a briefer article on this topic in Harper's Magazine, The Oil We Eat.

David Brin said...

Guys, the conference I'm now at is VERY contrarian and tech optimist. (Hey, they invite me every year and has Stewart Brand and Kim Stanley Robinson last year. (OTOH this year they are adding Bruce Sterling!)

Heads up. Cellulosic biofuels may be very near. But even more important, this top VC thinks the time and tech are right to go heavy into SOLAR THERMAL, which has few of the disadvantages of photovoltaic. (e.g. steam can be stored.

Eyes open on this. It could be really big.

Tony Fisk said...

While we wait for David to expand on that intriguing remark, a quick google on solar thermal brings up articles in wikipedia and an Australian Government site.
(Hmm, referring back to the original topic, there's an article on how solar energy can be used to cool stored grain)

One company I'm watching is Green and Gold energy, who are just starting to mass produce their solar cube fresnel systems (which have an estimated efficiency of 34% in Adelaide). No, not solar *thermal*, but interesting.

Still, the real test here will be whether or not the Australian solar industry can survive the newly introduced means test on the solar rebate. The populist gripe being that only the rich and semi-rich have the money to spare from soaring rent and loan repayments to install such things anyway. I think the real gripe is that the means test is a single cutoff of $100,000AUD, which isn't *that* high, and so only serves to cut off the 'edges of the diamond', as it were. That, and the nagging thought that a common resource might end up in the hands of a few large cartels.

Been there, done that. Rant over.

HarCohen said...

Solar thermal? Maybe where it doesn't snow. I'm not climbing up on my roof in February to clear the snow to get a hot shower. I'm joking. You must have something else in mind.

I know Ohio has or had a German firm looking into putting solar energy manufacturing here. I never thought to ask what variety.

Another example of bad or at least untimely politics. The Ohio legislature got itself in a twist when the firm suggested Ohio needs to set quotas for the various types of energy production.

I hope someone else can explain that better than I just did. Anyhow, it was probably the corn lobby and the coal lobby joining forces.

HarCohen said...

Wait a minute! I know I can't store sunlight (reminiscent of GE's commercial it can store the wind in jars). Haven't we heard of batteries that can be charged from photovotaic activity? In fact I have some in place running those cute little LED patio lights.

What was your point David?

Tony Fisk said...

I think the point was that generating heat from solar is more efficient than generating electricity.

(and never mind the snow, think of summer!!;-)

Stefan Jones said...

Solar thermal: An array of mirrors points at a collector through which a molten salt circulates. The hot salt, kept in insulated chambers underground, can be used to boil water and drive turbines as required.

Yes, there's some loss, but not as much as you get by conversion to electricity and storage in a battery.

* * *

My parents installed a solar water heating system on their house in the 1970s. This was on Long Island, NY.

During the winter, it was a "preheater," getting the water up to about 90 degrees F. An oil-fired heater did the rest.

During the summer, the system produced copious amounts of 160 degree F water.

Tony Fisk said...

So, the real bit of 'aha' is the means of storing the captured energy as a heat source? Graphite has been mentioned for this purpose as well. This would work with wind power, as well (I recall reading some trial of using ion flow batteries for this).

I'm curious on two things:
- what *are* the actual losses?
- what scales are we talking about: household? community? regional?

When it comes to alternate energy sources, I think it's a case of the more, the merrier. So, I'd better call in another contender that uses the same principle. Geodynamics is currently setting up a 50MW power plant using heat from chunks of granite 3Km down. (does that make the Earth the safest nuclear reactor after the sun?;-) That's due in 2012. A 500MW plant is to follow in 2016. However, this technology is not likely to be turning up in your back yard.
It's also interesting to note that, after initial support, Woodside petroleum have not maintained their shareholdings in this venture, preferring to invest in LNG instead. Hmmm!

Travc said...

Spain seems to be investing heavily in solar thermal. (Just Google "solar thermal spain")

I'd like to chime in with a bit of a 'meta' point...

IMO, the major transition in energy production won't be replacing big fossil fuels plants with big solar/wind/whatever plants. What will really change things is going from generating energy in big centralized plants to small installations all over the place. In a phrase, distributed energy production.

The benefits are many. Less infrastructure loss and load is obvious. But enabling 'site specific' generation using whatever resources are locally available is even better. The real key though, again IMO, is the way distributed energy production enables much more rapid innovation.

It is quite costly and takes a long time to build a new power plant. So the technology used will be conservative. On the other hand, a natural gas micro-turbine generator sitting the basement of a building is relatively cheap and easy to swap out (or augment) with newer technology. It is also a lot easier to 'tinker' with small generation systems... if the mods don't work so well, no great loss.

We have many options for small scale power production. Individuals may install a small wind-turbine or solar panels, but at this point the real action is at the scale of factories, big farms, hi-rise buildings, and other such commercial buildings. As just an example, just from watching random TV (Dirty Jobs and such) I've heard of a large dairy running on methane from cow dung digesters, a nut processor running their ovens and some generator on the shells and such, and several companies (Whole Foods and Google being two I remember off the top of my head) putting solar and/or wind-turbines on some of their buildings.

BTW: Some of these sorts of things are for good PR... but a lot of them are actually money-making ventures (maybe more accurately 'less money spending'). Hell, there is at least one consulting firm which specializes in getting financing for such installations by doing technical and financial analysis to show to banks/investors.

Tony Fisk said...

travc, you may be interested in Jamais Cascio's attempt at mapping out possible future green scenarios. He uses the small vs large scale issue as one of his drivers.

(I believe the resulting talk and discussion is available here)

Personally, I think there are things to be said for both approaches. I think both should be encouraged, but I am concerned about anything which tends to stifle the small scale initiatives. (eg the means test I alluded to earlier. I don't actually think it is particularly sinister, just unfortunate)

Jester said...

Nothing new about Solar Thermal - Solar One went on-line in 1982. You can see it from the I-40 out by Dagget.

The "way to go" is definately a combination of large and small scale electrical production.

HarCohen said...

An inside joke, Jester? It's not operational according to Google Earth (bikecam).

Jester said...

Seems they shut down a few years back. I had no idea.

There are still a bunch of mirrors out there, wierd that they didn't recycle all that material.

Tony Fisk said...

Oh? The impression I got from my admittedly quick skim was that Solar 1 was recycled as 'Solar 2' in 1995, and that the commercial plant Solar Tres is being built in Spain as a result (capable of storing 600MwH... definitely stay away from *that* light!)

Jester said...

Yeah, but apparently they shut down a few years back.

Solar one used oil, and went on-line back in 82.

Solar Two was an "upgrade", they added more mirrors and went from oil to molten sodium. I recall a PBS thing on it back when they did it.

Tony Fisk said...

Ah, yes. Solar 2 shut down in 1999, and was recommissioned in 2001 by UC as an air cerenkov telescope for gamma ray astronomy. (Comment from DoE at the time was that the US had access to cheaper power sources...times change)

Solar Tres is three times the power (15-17MW) and is currently under construction in Spain. No indication as to when it will be completed.

HarCohen said...

The images include mirror shards lying around and many mirrors tilted randomly (to my eye) from the horizontal which predominate. Apparently the air cerenkov observations are over, or only use a subset of mirrors.

Maybe they can resurrect Solar II. Gas prices have now reached $4.239/gal. in Cleveland, OH. Seems like only a week ago they were $3.899/gal.

Tyler August said...

Re: Large scale vs small scale
-- the collectivization vs libertarian/independence argument all over again, methinks. Churches and bazaars. Near as I can tell, it's more often your politics which determine your preference than the technical merits of either approach. And the world is messy, so of course both are going to be employed. Example-- a turbine in the basement is unlikely because heat engines scale up much better than they scale down, as a rule. It becomes an efficiency question in that case. This is WHY we did it in the first place. Edison wanted a power plant in every building, or at least on every block, but only with the transmission losses on DC was that at all feasible. With Tesla's AC distribution, the efficiency argument swung the other way, big time.
Now, this only applies for heat engines. A turbine in the basement, nein.
PV on your roof? Certainly! To a solid state process, a dozen square feet and a thousand are both immeasurably massive.
A wind turbine? The big'uns tend to be better. Hard to make a smaller airfoil work as well, once again. That's one of the reasons they seem to keep getting bigger and bigger-- the other is to tap into the stronger, less turbulent, and more consistent winds higher up. But the loss argument here is much fuzzier and smaller, localized turbines may win out over central farms in transmission losses.
This all assumes, of course, that gov't subsidies don't skew the market in one way or the other to make up for the price difference the relative efficiencies of each option causes.
...okay. A use for the free market. I guess so long as we keep it free as Smith intended, these things can work well enough after all.
Could also solved in a Technocratic/GAR framework, provided cronyism doesn't prevent the proper analysis from reaching the top end, and the top end is nice enough to pay attention.

As to gas prices-- have you seen gas prices in Europe? All the whining Americans are doing about 4$ a gallon to be honest makes you look like wimps when the good people in the EU take the time to convert the measurements. They pay over 8$/gal. The socioeconomic situation is different, sure. But we still look like wimps.

zorgon the malevolent said...

With all due respect, biofuels, wind power, solar electric, solar thermal, tidal power and all other alternative sources of energy remains a trivial sideshow. America currently uses 3.35 terawatts, compared to 15 terawatts for the rest of the world. Solar, wind, etc. currently account for 0.11 terawatts of energy generation in the United States.

We need 3350 gigawatts to run America at current levels of energy consumption. For comparison, the San Onofre reactor #2 outputs 1.07 gigawatts. So we would need 3350 reactors like San Onofre #2 to supply America's energy needs -- or, for comparison, 1775 wind farms of the size T. Boone Pickens just ordered for the Texas panhandle.

Various ill-informed people will object that we can enact various conservation measures, a good idea which won't change our need for energy because the reality on the ground is that our capitalist society maintains itself by growing our economy. Assuming we maintain a GDP growth of 2.5% per year, about what we've been doing for the last 30 years, that gives the U.S. economy a doubling time of 30 years. So if our economy doubles in another 30 years, even the most radical energy conservation measures might manage to cut our energy usage by perhaps 50%...leaving us by the time we finish buildling our brand new non-oil-based energy infrastructure exactly where we are today, needing 3350 gigawatts to run America.

The only practical way of supplying our energy needs without roasting the planet by our carbon emissions is to go nuclear in a big way. 3350 nuclear plants are doable, just barely, albeit requiring a massive investment a lot of work -- 15,000 wind farms the size of the T. Boone Pickens installation is science fiction. That would be several million giant wind turbines. We just don't have the time, we don't have the space and we don't have the infrastructure to deploy energy generations systems of such low capacity. Nuclear is the only option that gives us enough carbon offset soon enough before we roast ourselves with greenhouse gasses.

Moving on to good news, and good news in a manner of speaking...

Implanted "brain gate" allows locked-in paralyzed patient to communicate for first time in nine years.
A major breakthrough for these patients occurred in December 2004, when a neural interface consisting of a few thin electrodes was implanted in the brain of 24-year-old Erik Ramsey, who was "locked in" at age 16 when a car crash triggered a brain-stem stroke.
Dr. Frank Guenther and his team put the device, developed by Neural Signals Inc. near Atlanta, into Ramsey's speech-motor cortex, allowing him a chance to communicate for the first time in nine years.
"By measuring the brain signals in this area while Erik thinks about speaking, we have been able to build a decoder that translates the brain signals into the speech sounds Erik was thinking about," says Guenther, an associate professor of cognitive and neural systems at Boston University.
"The output of the decoder is used to drive a speech synthesizer, which creates sound output."


New antibiotic kills MRSA superbug.

In other news, biologists have figured out how to tell cells to organize themselves in complex ways, using the cells' own biochemical communication system:
"Bacteria have been programmed to behave like computers, assembling themselves into complex shapes based on instructions stuffed into their genes.
"The research could lead to smart biological devices that could detect hazardous substances or bioterrorism chemicals, scientists say. Eventually, the process might be used to direct the construction of useful devices or the growth of new tissue, perhaps restoring function to a severed spinal cord.
"(..) What's new about this latest effort is that the bacteria are made to communicate, so that millions or even billions of them gather in a predictable manner."


New poll shows Obama pulling far ahead of McCain to win nationally by 8 points. With Edwards running as VP, he wins by a landslide 17 points. And you ain't seen nothin' yet, folks. Wait until Obama starts slamming McCain as the drunk-driving C student's third term in the general election. This one is gonna be a blowout worse than the Nixon-McGovern landslide...except this time, the good guys win.

In the war between hollow collapsing failed states and virtual shadow states, looks like the virtual shadow states are winning hands down:
"May's dispute between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah is an interesting example of the contest between hollow states and virtual states over legitimacy and sovereignty. As in most conflicts between gutted nation-states and aggressive virtual states, Hezbollah's organic legitimacy trumped the state's in the contest (an interesting contrast between voluntary affiliation and default affiliation by geography). The fighting was over in six hours."

Of course, the biggest collapsing hollow state is Mexico, right next door to us -- and it's currently being demolished by the virtual shadow state known as the "Mexican drug cartels." The drug cartels outclass Mexico in every possible way: they've got far more money, vastly better weapons, much more manpower, and a great deal more legitimacy. In fact, things have gotten so bad that
Mexican police are now walking out of Mexico across the border into America, and asking for asylum:

Javier Emilio Perez Ortega, a workaholic Mexican police chief, showed up at the sleepy, two-lane border crossing here last month and asked U.S. authorities for political asylum.
Behind him, law and order was vanishing fast. In the four months he had served as Puerto Palomas police chief, drug traffickers had threatened to kill him and his officers if they tried to block the flow of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines into the United States, his former colleagues said on condition of anonymity.
After a particularly menacing telephone call, his 10-man force resigned en masse. His bodyguards quit, too. Abandoned by his men and unable to trust the notoriously corrupt Mexican authorities, Perez Ortega turned to the only place he believed he could find refuge -- the United States, the former colleagues said.


And it's getting worse, not better:
(headline) MEXICO'S DRUG CARTELS TAKE OUT NATIONAL POLICE CHIEF -- The chaotic drug violence in Mexico continues unabated. With more than 6,000 killed in the past few years, today we can add yet another victim: the country's national police chief, killed by gunmen outside his home in Mexico City yesterday.

In a roundabout way, this qualifies as good news, since it will eventually force us to abandon America's insanely foolish and self-destructive "war on drugs." The only question is whether Mexico will disintegrate into another Iraq before we do so. Time will tell...

Meanwhile, on the fiscal front, yet another wake-up call from the GAO. Of course the army of ostriches with their heads in the sand, like Dr. Brin, will continue to parrot the mindless mantra "support the troops" and "Pax Americana" while stridently arguing that America must sustain our present unsustainable military industrial establishment, which daily grows like a tumor and now threatens to kill us.
The answer, radically cutting back the U.S. military, cannot of course be contemplated, since America is "the greatest military power the world has ever known" despite the fact that those troops we support can't manage to defeat a bunch of 15-year-old kids armed with plastique and some used cellphones.

The GAO is an independent government body which has no political agenda. It consists of civil servants with no axe to grind. I quote the first paragraph of the April addendum to the current GAO report on long-term fiscal trends:
Our updated simulations continue to illustrate that the long-term fiscal outlook is unsustainable. (See fig. 1) Despite some improvement in the long-term outlook for federal health and retirement sepdning, the federal government still faces large and growing structural deficits driven by primarily by rising health care costs and known demographic trends. (..) Although Social Security is important because of its size, the real driver of the long-term fiscal outlook is health care spending. Medicare and Medicaid are both large and projected to grow rapidly in the future."

The response on this forum, as elsewhere, has been for everyone to stick their fingers in their ears and shout "Neener neener neener, can't hear you, neener neener neener! Support the troops! Pax Americana! It's a dangerous world out there! Neener neener neener!"
In one sense, this fiscal juggernaut rushing down on us qualifies as good news for those of us who advocate a radically smaller U.S. military, since these budget projections show clearly and unmistakably that anything even remotely close to America's current 13% of GDP expenditure on the U.S. military simply can't be sustained.
Like Cassandra, my fate is to predict the fiscal tsunami which clearly and obviously rushes upon us as we persist in the insanity of pissing away 1.3 trillion dollars per year on a useless worthless U.S. military...and not be believed.

Tony Fisk said...

Zorgon, while a lot of your treatise is interesting, I must emphatically denounce a framed coupling you insist on making:

Of course the army of ostriches with their heads in the sand, like Dr. Brin, will continue to parrot the mindless mantra "support the troops" and "Pax Americana"

True enough (but hardly mindless: a few essays worth have gone into the his stance)

... while stridently arguing that America must sustain our present unsustainable military industrial establishment, which daily grows like a tumor and now threatens to kill us.


In the (yikes!) nearly four years I have been hanging around here, I have NEVER seen Brin espouse the latter point. In fact, he has made some pretty damning statements on the military-industrial establishment, which he might also characterise as a cancer.

Troops, and the armed forces, are NOT the same thing as the contractors who supply them. Indeed, I think the relationship could be construed as another example of those hollow vs virtual states you were talking about.

HarCohen said...

Assuming we maintain a GDP growth of 2.5% per year, about what we've been doing for the last 30 years, that gives the U.S. economy a doubling time of 30 years. So if our economy doubles in another 30 years, even the most radical energy conservation measures might manage to cut our energy usage by perhaps 50%...leaving us by the time we finish buildling our brand new non-oil-based energy infrastructure exactly where we are today, needing 3350 gigawatts to run America.

Zorgon -

Just a couple thoughts:

Do we need to grow the GDP if we set the goal of ZPG?

Who says energy use correlates 100% to GDP in any case?

Heat from nuclear reactors is waste and waste heat from 3300 nuclear reactors is not going to benefit the environment. Oops. Don't forget to over-build for the number of reactors that will be off-line at any given time.

No one has discussed hydro-power. Although we've reached the end of the road in terms of domestic conventional hydro-power, there is still some research to be done I think with tidal power and thermo-electric generation. And what effect those will have on the environment I have no clue.

jrtom said...

quoth Dr. Brin:

Nevertheless, ethanol can be viewed as a wonderful way to store the produce of America's fertile fields, in a form that will be easily convertible, at some future date, into fuel, or money... and thus even back into food.

The problem with the last part is that you can only 'convert' ethanol to food if someone else has a surplus. Whether we're yet at the point of zero or negative worldwide food surpluses yet--a notion that's open to interpretation--it's hard to argue, given population trends, that we're not heading that direction.

Jester said...

"So we would need 3350 reactors like San Onofre #2"

3350 Nuclear reactors directly in the path of any tsunami sweeping across the Pacific, and located near a major fault?

Great idea.

The 20% of our power we get from big Hydro sources isn't going anywhere. Better knock down that estimate for both wind and nuclear.

At the end of the day, even with free insurance from the taxpayer, Nuclear Power costs three times as much as wind.

It's not power too cheap to meter, it's power too expensive to make. Despite massive giveaways by Bush covering up to half of construction costs, investors still aren't biting.

California currently has the same per capita electricity use we did in 1960 - with very modest conservation measures, it's only our population growth and not our GDP growth that has increased demand.

Sociotard said...

I have a question for "Mr. Transparency" (assuming he bothers to read the comments section before starting a new thread)

What is your opinion about sex offender lists? I ask because of the recent case of David J. Torrence. He's class III sex offender. Just so there is no confusion, he is a very bad man, not some 18 year old with a 17 year old girlfriend or a guy who got caught peeing on a tree. In 1995, when he was 30, he abducted a 16 year old girl and raped her.

Anyway, he was released and assigned an ankle tracker device. The problem was he couldn't go anywhere. He couldn't move in with relatives in another state, because that state refused to allow him to live there. Likewise local cities, shelters and motels all refused to let him in.

Finally, authorities gave him a poncho and a sleeping bag, then took him to the 88th street bridge and told him to live there.

After four days of living like a troll he cut the anklet and ran. He did later turn himself in.

Anyway, I was just wondering how all this registration business sat with you.

Sociotard said...

Oh, and Zorgon, I'm going to put my money on Mexico not collapsing. I see that prediction every other year, and it never happens. Here, look at one from 2007.

Tony Fisk said...

Sociotard raises an interesting point that, I think, hinges more on the appropriateness of punishment than issues of transparency.

Torrence's case is one of a pathological behavioural problem that is unlikely to have been corrected by a term of imprisonment, and that society at large isn't going to tolerate. It may be tough on him, it seems a bit rich that states can forbid him from taking up residence, and it does sound like the authorities absolved themselves of all responsibility, but there it is.

Would it be such a big deal if he was an habitual burglar?

Lighting the lamp for a sec (oh, who am I kidding?), comes news of the pentagon acknowledging that $1.8 billion of Iraqi war contract payments are unaccounted for.

But dig the spin from Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.:

"We had really allowed ourselves to become more and more dependent on contractors in peacetime," Mr Cordesman said. "We were unprepared to use contractors in wartime, and all of this had an immense impact."

Damn those peacetime administrations!

matthew said...

RIP Robert Asprin (1946-2008)

"On May 22, 2008, Bob passed away quietly in his home in
New Orleans, LA. He had been in good spirits and working
on several new projects, and was set to be the Guest of Honor
at a major science fiction convention that very weekend.
He is survived by his mother, his sister, his daughter and his
son, and his cat, Princess, not to mention countless friends and fans and numerous legendary fictional characters"


Travc said...

Completely OT, but perhaps something to mention the next time Mrs Brin (or one of us measly commenter's SOs) says we are spending too much time on blogs... ;)

Travc said...

tyler... good points about large scale energy production. My original post was a bit too dogmatic. A mix is certainly best, but right now large centralized rules to roost, so advocating for small scale makes sense.

Though I do think it is important to emphasize variety over a single 'solution'. The reasons are legion and obvious enough to folks here I suspect.

Travc said...

Zorgon... re: electrical-brain interface

Have you read Interface (Stephenson again, sigh)? It had an interesting twist on the neural implant that I think may actually work (certainly should be attempted). Instead of just implanting electrodes, injections of various pharmaceuticals to promote neural attachment/regeneration/reconfiguration are also done. Random but seems like a good idea.

adiffer said...

Large scale generation plants work out because the companies who build them are regulated monopolies. Such companies make money by adding assets to their rate base and then charging the customers for it all including construction costs. These plants are low risk investments as long as the relative PUC agrees to permit an asset into the rate base.

The main reason the large plants take so long to build is the legal challenges. NIMBY and environmental issues arise just about anywhere. Utilities operating as regulated monopolies, therefore, are motivated to build large in order to concentrate these costs into one event. The most they vary on this is when they build small plants on the same site as the large one (peak-ers next to slow ramping coal), but it is still tricky as it can re-open previously won battles.

As long as retail customers (us) are paying regulated monopolies this business model is likely to remain in force. We are insulated from the real price of electricity. If you do the math, you'll find the small turbine in the basement produces electricity at a higher cost than those large hydro, nuclear, and coal plants. The PV's on your roof produce at a much higher price. Even after all the legal costs, there is an economy of scale to electricity generation that favors large facilities. It is the heat engine model an earlier commenter mentioned.

The one thing I like about smaller, distributed alternative energy sources is their impact on the transmission grid. I work for the ISO in California and know that prices should be reflective of bottlenecks in that grid. We are in the midst of changing the way our wholesale market works here in order to bring into it some realistic price signals that will promote good investments and market efficiencies. Small generation capabilities in the hands of rate payers alters loads on the various retail distribution grids which alters the demands of those retailers on the transmission grid. As far as I'm concerned that is a good thing. I wish more people would do it.

However, I also wish we all would take a bit of time to understand the markets. Those small generation capabilities produce expensive electricity, so they make most sense as peak production. Peak production assets don't get amortized over as much time as base production assets do. For example, my summer A/C demands can get pretty high because I'm in the central valley of California. Peak power demands force regulated utilities to build excess generation assets, contract with independent generators, or buy power on the spot market. There are independent generation companies (not regulated monopolies) who specifically sell such expensive electricity into our market near peak and they make good money. If I put up 1 KW of PV's on my roof and angle them correctly, they will produce the most exactly when my A/C demands peak. Doing that reduces what my utility has to build or buy which can significantly alter their business model. The question I should ask myself is whether or not I can produce peak power cheaper that the utility can. If I can, I give my PUC has good reasons to discourage the growth of our rate base. If not and I try anyway, I'm using my political power as an potential voter to distort the market. An example of this distortion is how retail rates are used when we spin the meters backwards instead of wholesale rates. See the problem?

For the record, hydro and nuclear tend to produce the cheapest electricity. The best hydro sites in the US are already built out too. Wind energy is beginning to be competitive, but it is a royal pain to ISO people due to it's unpredictability. Loads and generation must balance on the grids or we get black-outs or burn-outs. A single large wind facility can change production levels and throw the balance off. If anyone wants to make a lot of money with wind, figure out how to stabilize the power output so these folks can actually submit acceptable bids in the market. Right now they can't, so they get whatever price they get offered and everyone gets paid when THEY provide the flexibility to balance the grid again.

David Brin said...

Zorgon is bright, but always skewed. For example, “gowing the economy” is a goal, but guess how it’s been done for 25 years? By increasing efficiency and productivity, not by classic 1950s expansion of population or raw production. (Though, indeed, America absorbing half the world’s legal and illegal immigrants has also propelled economic growth... and it's a generally positive thing that lefties always manage to put a dark spin on, even though it is both morally and economically laudable.)

In fact, the potential of solar thermal appears to be virtually limitless in the American southwest.

“Of course the army of ostriches with their heads in the sand, like Dr. Brin, will continue to parrot the mindless mantra "support the troops" and "Pax Americana" ...” Gawd, Z, you can (at times) be such a dope. And I mean that with patient affection. But your portrayal of me, and the majority of enlightenment defenders here, seems well... crazed.

In fact, Tony, while I maintain a health Eisenhowerian skeptical and wary eye toward the classic iron-mongering military contractors like Lockheed, they are not the prime thieves and villains of this recent era. They are veritable angels compared to Halliburton, KBR, Blackwater and the other FOBs.

Sociotard, there ought to be a free market solution to sex offenders. There are prairie ghost towns that have closed their schools for lack of kids. Let a couple of them sell out to a foundation that sets em up as pervert havens. Seriously, the towns and states that bar sex offenders should pay a small fee for doing so and that could fund the whole process.

But the transparency aspect is simple. You used to know who the perverts were in your small town. Now that reputation will follow these guys as a visible aura, seen through your tru-view specs.

HarCohen said...

I'll miss Robert Asprin's stories. I'll have to be certain to improve my collection of his books with which to relax and have some belly laughs from time to time.

"A single large wind facility can change production levels and throw the balance off. If anyone wants to make a lot of money with wind, figure out how to stabilize the power output so these folks can actually submit acceptable bids in the market."

That takes us right back to Dr. Brin's points. Use Wind-Electric-Thermal for energy storage. Use a storage facility shared with Solar-Thermal and storage can be recharged over a larger portion of a day. And of course a windmill can always grind the corn that feeds the still that makes the alcohol that sustains the auto industry that Ford built.

I'm curious about the micro-ecology beneath and downwind of a wind farm. We're not talking Frank Herbert's Dune I imagine, but does a wind farm or a solar farm provide more ecological niches in an otherwise barren landscape?

My implicit assumption of course is that more niches are good and fewer niches are bad. And would these niches be exploited indirectly by leaving them alone or exploited directly by conservation or commercialization? When do things scale up to have an impact in North Africa or along the Arabian coast?

Tony Fisk said...

I was trying to separate Zorgon's annoying insistence on conflating support of soldiers with support of suppliers, but thanks for the fine-tune: there's a scale with Lockheed at one end and Halliburton/KBR at the other.

adiffer, I agree that large scale systems usually predominate for reasons of efficiency/convenience, but they shouldn't be mandatory. Small scale provides a sense of empowerment, and promotes tinkering. It also flags to the big guys 'Hello? Market niche!'
(I recommend Cascio's Green Tomorrows Essay)

Interestingly, Green and Gold Energy appear to be supporting the whole spectrum. They are concentrating on producing solar cubes at the moment, and are intending to build large commercial solar farms and sell power to the companies.

At the other end of the scale, they are also organising local distributors for domestic installations.

Mid-range, they are also offering people the option of buying a number of cubes to be used on-site, and offsetting the power production against your energy bill.

...All of which should be read with a pinch of caveat emptor: they haven't actually produced anything yet!

And of course a windmill can always grind the corn that feeds the still that makes the alcohol that sustains the auto industry that Ford built.

Tony Fisk said...

This might be the answer to my concerns wrt scaling: the Beneficial Corporation

Stefan Jones said...

Hmmm, there's a thought. What sort of non-time-crucial things could you do with temporary spare current from alternative power sources?

Electrolyze water into hydrogen (to use in fuel cells). That's a form of storage, but it's also a sort of product.

Is there a form of CO2 sequestration that depends on current?

Tony Fisk said...


Actually, Stefan's question is quite interesting because one problem with alternative energy sources (particularly solar) is that peak supply doesn't match peak demand, which is where fuel cells and molten salts etc. come in.

Returning to Zorgon's riff about nuclear power being the only realistic solution:
Wind energy can supply 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs by 2030 at a "modest" cost difference, a new U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) report says.

I'm on record as not being a great fan of nuclear power, but will admit it has a place at the table. Fortunately, there seems to be room for a few other place settings as well.

Michael said...

The difficulties in power generation are, at the broadest scope, twofold.

First: Power requirements fluctuate, both across the course of a day and the course of the year.

Second: Power generation methods tend to either be poor at handling changing demands (most of the big plants, really), or uncontrollable in time (wind, solar).

Seems to me the way to go is to try to develop low-loss methods of storing the power from uncontrollable sources so that it can be generated whenever, then rationed out as needed - timeshifting peak supply to match peak demand.

Of course, I'm not exactly in the field.

HarCohen said...

Stefan --

You mean something like this --

Advanced Powder Technol., Vol. 16, No. 5, pp. 517–533 (2005)
 VSP and Society of Powder Technology, Japan 2005.
Also available online -
Original paper
Kinetic study of a new photosynthesis bioreactor design
using TiO2 particles combined with enzymes
Department of Environmental Engineering for Symbiosis, Faculty of Engineering, Soka University,
1-236 Tangi-cho, Hachioji, Tokyo 192-8557, Japan
Received 10 December 2004; accepted 18 January 2005
Abstract—A new photo-bioreactor for an electron transfer system using a photocatalyst combined
with enzymes is proposed by the use of a ceramic membrane separating photocatalysis from
biocatalysis to allow highly selective production of enzymes that is promoted by photocatalysis
without denaturation of the enzyme due to direct light irradiation. In this work, an electron transfer
system which combines TiO2 photocatalyst particles with two enzymes was studied with formate
dehydrogenase (FDH) as a catalyst of CO2 fixation. Methyl viologen (MV), NAD and diaphorase
(DAH) were used to mediate electron transfer from TiO2 to FDH. The kinetic study of MV+
production by TiO2 particles revealed that MV+ production follows a reaction scheme consisting
of MV+ generation with Langmuir–Hinshelwood expression and an independent first-order decay
of MV+ in a homogeneous reaction. The performance of the total photo-bioreactor with a ceramic
membrane, which separates enzymes from TiO2 to protect them from direct UV irradiation, was
successfully demonstrated. Using batch operations, the total performance of the system was examined.
Concentrations both of MV and NADH affected the rate of CO2 fixation: the total reaction kinetics
was discussed to optimize the total performance. The kinetic parameters of the so-called ping–pong
reaction of DAH were determined experimentally and the coupled reaction with TiO2–MV+–DAH–
NADH–FDH–CO2 was discussed quantitatively with an assumption of a steady-state.
Keywords: Artificial photosynthesis; TiO2; methyl viologen; diaphorase; photo-bioreactor.

HarCohen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
HarCohen said...

BTW - My introduction to research in artificial photosynthesis came from Analog Magazine, April 2005 edition, Artificial Photosynthesis by Stephen L. Gillett, PhD. Read this article! It is a case where two different academic specialties are learning to talk together.

Rather than dealing with hydrogen directly as a product, Dr. Gillett suggests the process will lead to methanol production by capturing CO[2] from the atmosphere and the purification of seawater or oil field brine water. His BOTE calculations suggest 120 square kilometers of desert may produce the equivalent of the 10 million barrels of oil Saudi Arabia produces daily. What is the area of the Baja?

Tony Fisk said...

Totally off topic, but cool: if you want to know what Phoenix looked like as it parachuted to Mars, go here.

David Brin said...

The classic use for excess peak power generation is to pump water uphill. Up the Columbia dams. Not the Colorado (Since LA would sue for the water.)

It's a way to expand hydo power.

adiffer said...

Excess French nuclear energy is given away free to Norway where they pump water uphill in the evening and night. They let the water go back downhill during the day and get cheap hydro power costs. Nuclear power generation tends to have terrible ramp rates, so the operators cannot change things quickly. If you depend on this type of generation for more than your base need, this is the potential situation you get.

If you want a feel for what demand curves look like in California you can see them here. In the summer the peak on the demand curve occurs around 4pm and the second peak in the evening gets swamped. This curve is a crude representation of what goes on and can't show bottlenecks or regional issues, so don't treat it as gospel.

If anyone really wants to promote small scale generation in California, be prepared to tinker with the regulatory environment. I cannot buy power directly from a supplier. Big companies that had contracts to do so before the market meltdown a few years ago still can, but we are mostly insulated from that market. That means we pass through regulated monopolies or city utilities (similar). They aren't motivated to think small due to the way their market works.

HarCohen said...

Hmmm. The closest major hydro-electric source to me may be Niagara Falls(?!). And you say they have excess capacity? There have been major arguments over how much water is enough water to sustain the Falls, so I think we're past that point in the Great Lakes region.

It is strange what we have not yet put into practice.

Most communities rely on towers to distribute water. In a major power grid failure, we will be without water within 8 hours as I recall (we're all filling our bathtubs as well of course).

I can just envision a few triple-duty towers in the future of my small city. Telecommunications, water services, and energy storage in a structure that includes solar energy collection, a wind turbine, and electric generators to provide some emergency power through wind or water (even if some water gets dumped back to a sewer main overnight as a consequence).

Electric powered government vehicles would probably be charged on-site.

Here is an interesting article about what they are doing in Israel to build an infrastructure for electric cars:
(Why don't they give better hints about HTML tags on the compose page? I don't always remember the 'hyperlink' is 'a'.)

So I think on a local level, we should build more, better multi-purpose towers for general emergencies. I wonder if Homeland Security funds are available for a grant.

Gilmoure said...

Whoa! Looks like the future is now. Looks like they're regenerating organs and re-implanting them in animals and people and are now working on digits and soon limbs. Wild!

Salamander-inspired therapy may aid injured vets

By Larry Shaughnessy
CNN Pentagon Producer

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (CNN) -- Last week in an operating room in Texas, a wounded American soldier underwent a history-making procedure that could help him regrow the finger that was lost to a bomb attack in Baghdad, Iraq, last year.

Army Sgt. Shiloh Harris' doctors applied specially formulated powder to what's left of the finger in an effort to do for wounded soldiers what salamanders can do naturally: replace missing body parts.

If it sounds like science fiction, the lead surgeon agreed.

"It is. But science fiction eventually becomes true, doesn't it?" asked Dr. Steven Wolf of Brooke Army Medical Center.

Harris' surgery is part of a major medical study of "regenerative medicine" being pursued by the Pentagon and several of the nation's top medical facilities, including the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the Cleveland Clinic. Nearly $250 million has been dedicated to the research.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro is one of the wounded vets who might one day benefit from this research. He was injured by a bomb in Afghanistan. Both his hands were badly burned. On his left hand, what was left of his fingers fused together.

"You know, in the beginning, when I first got hurt, I told them, just cut it off. So I can get some function," Del Toro said. His doctors did not cut off his injured left arm. And since that injury, advancements in burn and amputation treatment mean he may one day be able to use his fingers again. Watch more on regenerative medicine »

A key to the research dedicated to regrowing fingers and other body parts is a powder, nicknamed "pixie dust" by some of the people at Brooke. It's made from tissue extracted from pigs.

The pixie dust powder itself doesn't regrow the missing tissue; it tricks the patient's body into doing that itself.

All bodies have stem cells. As we are developing in our mothers' wombs, those stem cells grow our fingers, toes, organs -- essentially, our whole body. The stem cells stop doing that around birth, but they don't go away. The researchers believe that the "pixie dust" can put those stem cells back to work growing new body parts.

The powder forms a microscopic "scaffold" that attracts stem cells and convinces them to grow into the tissue that used to be there.

"If it is next to the skin, it will start making skin. If it's next to a tendon, it will start making a tendon, and so that's the hope, at least in this particular project, that we can grow a finger," Wolf said.

It has worked in earlier experiments. "They have taken a uterus out of a dog, made one in the lab, put it back in and had puppies," Wolf said. Researchers have also regrown a human bladder and implanted it in a person, and it is working as nature intended.

Although the technique has incredible promise, doctors will be watching for unexpected side effects as they follow Harris' recovery. "It could grow a cancer," Wolf said. "We will be closely monitoring for that to make sure that doesn't happen."

If the military's most badly wounded start benefiting, so will civilians. "If we can pull this off in missing parts the next step is, OK, can we grow a pancreas? Can we grow and replace that in a diabetic? And can we do the same thing with a kidney and can we do the same thing with a heart?"

One day, he hopes, people with heart trouble will be told, "That's OK. We will just grow you another one."

"That is something that is real science fiction."

Stefan Jones said...

"They have taken a uterus out of a dog, made one in the lab, put it back in and had puppies,"

Great. Now my dog will be bugging me to be unspayed. She has her eyes on this Great Dane . . .

HarCohen said...

Gilmoure -

Did you see the Law and Order episode (I think it was L&O) where a mouse without natural immunities was growing a human ear? I didn't know if it was true or science fiction. It may have been quite a bit of both.

Pancreatic cancer is very difficult to catch early and treat well. So once they can do a pancreas, I could see some people wanting theirs' replaced, diabetes or not.

Can we get back to the original topic of plentiful hard liquor, once again? ;)

Sidereus said...


Looks like they released an even more dramatic photo of the lander's decent. Wow: