Mar 25

Invisible Hand Vs. Mother Nature

Alternatives to resource intensive fossil fuels are necessary for humankind’s survival, yet market capitalism takes big risks in the face of climate changes and forces of nature. By Brian D. Smiley Jan 18, 2013


In 2008, the global sustainable energy investment reached $155 billion and surpassed the investment in fossil fuels for the first time, yet the US still only gets around 19 percent of it’s energy from renewable sources. As of 2011 we are globally at $257 billion in expenditures for large-scale hydro, solar, wind and biofuel production. By comparison, the world spends around $1630 billion on militaries (SIPRI, 2011). Most science and industry experts agree that a balanced approach of intelligently switching to renewable energy sources, implementing efficiency improvements wherever possible, while simultaneously reducing the total amount of energy consumption for each individual, will be necessary to create a sustainable world for generations to come.

Not only are the emissions from coal and oil leading to global environmental collapse by promoting the greenhouse effect, eventually humans will run out of the current resources that sustain modern life. Other factors of pollution, low efficiency and geographic dependency are pushing a need for a switch to renewable resources. Fossil fuel emissions are the largest contributor to climate change and according to a United States Department of Energy study in 2010, they account for 84.6 percent of greenhouse gases emitted in the US. Yet, powerful lobby groups continue to have unlimited access to lawmakers while some small business entrepreneurs feel unsupported. Much of the real change needed in energy policy and funding has taken a back seat in the political theatre as cheaper sources of fossil fuel are seen as necessary to jump-start the economy from the latest recession. However, alternatives like solar, wind and biofuels are getting a push-start from government expenditures through actions from the US tax payer bailouts, global energy initiatives and renewed interest from people around the world after record droughts, super-storms and other strange weather patterns begin to become a more common and obvious threat.

When asked about the pace at which industry is adopting alternative energy resources, edible algae entrepreneur and former senior scientist at NASA’s Omega Project, Dr. Aaron Wolf Baum points out that the scale of change is daunting, “We have a huge economy where many of the technologies will take 10 to 20 years to switch over. We have to start by building consciousness”. He points out that even with government subsidy, some of the first and second generation biofuels from crops have unintended consequences. Scientists agree that growing corn and other food crops for ethanol takes away from the food supply, requires valuable land and is fossil fuel intensive and government has set limitations on production. However, In an EMBO analysis of biofuels, GM’s director of environment and Energy Policy, Mary Beth Stanek, outlines the demand from the transportation industry for biofuel, “Actually, you can fuel up today,” she said. “The actual fuel itself is ethanol, whether it’s from first-generation corn or second-generation cellulosic, or even, in the future, algae or some of the other third generation fuels.” These fuels can be used in the existing motors of most of the vehicles and machines in use today.

Image: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/research/OMEGA/index.html


The Omega Project is working on growing algae at sea using wastewater tubes fed with the exhaust from power plants to potentially both clean the air and water, store large amounts of carbon, while producing a renewable liquid fuel source. Although large-scale efforts face technological and financial challenges, liquid biofuels will be essential for the future and algae is proving to be the best source for creating fuels that will work for ships, planes and heavy vehicles. Environmental scientists and the auto companies are in agreement that electric vehicles will solve most of the daily transportation needs if the electrical grid can support them. The grid can be powered from alternative energy like the sun, wind, and geo/solar thermal heat syncs that use saline water to store heat energy and run turbines. However, to build the consciousness and consensus around alternative energy you have to go to the people. To promote algae and it’s many uses, Dr. Baum is teaching workshops, consulting on projects and selling kits to grow Spirulina because it currently makes more sense to eat it than to make fuel for most people. In today’s market it is a natural starting point for entrepreneurs and he is involved with exiting startup companies like algaelab.org. Spirulina and other algae are to nutrition what solar power is to alternative energy; their potential is still being fully grasped.

Precious R& D funds for alternative energy fuels and various innovations can come from the government or from the private sector. The business model that Dr. Baum and others are promoting is to start with what is economically sustainable and then to feed the development of other products and technologies from profits. Alternative energy Researcher Ryan Grace hopes to see certain technologies become open source projects where thousands of people can collaborate and advance the research, development, testing and documentation of these technologies without the need for huge cash investments upfront, costly lawsuits and patent disputes. Grace points to his current work with the Drupal web development framework or the electronics prototyping platform Arduino; both are maintained and updated by thousands of participants yet still allow for profit-making businesses to thrive. Regarding government support for alternatives, in his experience, “politicians are owned by the businesses that funded their election so public money is invested in technologies that don’t disturb the status quo much like costly corn ethanol.” In order to get the special investment in radically advanced technologies such as GEET fuel processors, HHO water ignition and even Biofuel storage, he points out the need for campaign finance reform and a serious look at the bloated defense budget. There are other driving factors behind the lack in alternative energy investment beyond the direct subsidy of the oil and gas industry. With twenty percent of every tax dollar being spent on the US military, whose partial role is to secure fossil fuels overseas, taxpayers feed the largest polluter on the earth while renewable resources are being underdeveloped. The total science and research budget that includes alternative energy is at two percent of each tax dollar.

Humans will need biofuels to run the countless internal combustion engines we use now but an electric motor is generally four times as efficient. Algae creates the most promising biofuels but electricity can be generated in a myriad of ways. Storing and transporting the electrical energy is one current set of challenges. Many scientists are working on battery storage technologies like the hybrid electrode. Plug-in and electric-gas hybrid vehicles could take advantage of the grid and even recharge from the sun with mounted photovoltaic solar systems. Creating energy efficiency in the grid and our devices is the hope of projects that tax carbon emissions and reinvest the revenue.


Hydrogen as a fuel is a challenging energy storage medium although it has got a lot of attention in recent years with California’s proposed hydrogen highway and prototype cars and busses hitting the market. Dr. Baum points out that hydrogen takes up a lot of volume and storing the hydrogen is difficult because it can go right through steel. There may be specific applications for hydrogen fuel but it’s many technical challenges might rule it’s use out for large-scale energy storage in the near future without significant breakthroughs.

Research into cold fusion has been the dream for many chemists and physicists as the problems of our current fission nuclear reactors are multifold. The storage of nuclear waste, dangers of running the facilities and the destructive mining for plutonium, uranium and all the substances in the various nuclear fuels are some examples of the danger of nukes as an alternative to fossil fuels. Nuclear fuels’ heavy demand on the environment, non-renewable nature and dangerous production cycle leaves this resource out as a solution for people concerned with the environmental dangers. In 2000, the mining of nuclear fuels was shown to increase greenhouse emissions on the whole so it is not a clean-air energy source as touted by its supporters. Yet, policy makers are pushing forward with a nuclear economy by opening new contracts to build more reactors. The current ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in Japan, resulting from the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, is causing many to rethink nuclear power. Many countries in Europe are phasing out nuclear altogether. If not for a change in wind direction, the entire city of Tokyo could have been evacuated after the Fukushima disaster. This may have solidified the world’s notion of eliminating nuclear power in exchange for alternative energy resources.

Wind energy to power the grid is an exciting field as the technology for the turbines improves and newly designed systems harness the power of the wind. In Shanghai they have implemented many new technologies like vertical axis turbines and they have begun to install the world’s largest offshore wind farm. Wind turbines that can be setup locally for small operations do not require long power lines, which is still a daunting challenge to bring the power to large urban areas. China is pushing for innovation and has signed onto certain global environmental protocols yet it is also developing and using fossil fuels at an alarming rate.

Natural Gas use is spreading globally as hydraulic fracturing technologies, or ‘fracking’, have made America into the world’s largest producer of fossil fuels once again. Some recent studies are showing that there are heavy environmental risks and damaging use of dwindling fresh water supplies that go along with this process. Arctic exploration is back on the table and the Canadian Tar Sands, if fully opened, would put billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. The Keystone XL pipeline seems to be moving forward despite the current administration temporarily halting its expansion in 2012 due to large protests from numerous environmental movements. The oil and gas industry continues to rake in record-breaking profits from resources that some argue should not be exploited unfairly and carelessly.


The advantages in fossil fuel are mainly in the low-cost of its production. It’s clear their use and environmental damage are causing irreparable harm. However, it is also evident that if the government only funded renewable resources and stopped the tax subsidies to oil and coal, the dirtier resources may not be able to compete. In 2009, Photo Voltaic Solar (PV) matched coal at a dollar a watt and it’s hard to ignore the potential that rains down from the sun every day. Large-scale solar projects are going up all over the world and new ways to heat water from mirrors or storing heat in saline water, expand the possibilities for solar thermal energy production.

Real world examples of renewable energy in action are encouraging for the future. Tidal/wave power, solar thermal arrays, and well-managed hydroelectric power will feed the grid in a positive way. Their efficiency will rely on the government regulations surrounding them and the willingness of the public to support the properly evaluated implementation. However, Qin et al. (2012) point out that government and industry have been lacking a comprehensive set of analysis tools that account for cost benefit, cost effectiveness and cost utility all together. Their group set out to create a system to rank and determine the actual benefit or loss involved with implementing alternative energy projects so that all sides of the equation can be considered, not just monetary goals.

Paul Hawken, in his book, The Ecology of Commerce, points out that business is slowly realizing there is more to its role than making money. He states, “There is no polite way to say that business is destroying the world.” He points to the decimation of 97 percent of ancient forests in North America, the future loss of the Ogalla Aquifer at continued rates of use, and the loss of 25 billion tons of topsoil every year with our current farming practices. These statistics are just the beginning of a quickening trend. When you look at the rapid acidification of the oceans, the retreating of the glaciers, the shrinking of the ice caps, the growing amounts of greenhouse gasses and the rising environmental cost of fossil fuels, it becomes obvious that the world needs to change it’s energy and environmental policies fast. Hawken goes on to say, “The rate and extent of environmental degradation is far in excess of what is portrayed in the media.” In the 20 years since he wrote those words, our understanding of the worsening problems has grown. Even though many in the world are acting by signing on to treaties like the Kyoto Protocol, the US as the world’s biggest polluter has yet to enact major policy changes that are in agreement with the world’s view.

Some business leaders like T.Boone Pickens have made splashes in the media for promoting wind energy projects but he has since backed off of wind and is now more heavily invested than ever in natural gas since lands have been opened for hydraulic shale fracturing. Fracking uses a massive combination of water, chemicals and sand to break open the shale to release gas and oil. This has driven down the price of natural gas despite environmental concerns of the impacts on clean water and air quality. Natural gas does reduce greenhouse emissions compared with traditional fossil fuels and it reduces the dependence on foreign energy supplies so it is seen by many as a viable alternative to oil, coal and nuclear in the near future. Later this year, federal regulations on shale gas mining will be released. In recent statements, John Watson, CEO of Chevron said that the current US regulatory framework makes it “a good place to do business”. If it’s business as usual, those federal regulations may not come fast enough. Currently, in many states, businesses are not required to list where they are ‘fracking’, to pressure test the wells or to monitor where they are dumping the wastewater. California recently imposed new regulations that attempt to gain control of the powerful oil and gas industry by requiring a list what non-proprietary chemicals are used, but many environmentalists are calling the regulations ‘too little and too late’ after 50 years of largely unregulated oil and gas fracking. More regulations are expected at the State and Federal level.

Recent changes are bringing hope to changes in energy policy. The biggest boost ever to alternative energy development came when President Obama enacted his portion of the 2009 bailout with billions being invested in burgeoning technologies through direct support and tax breaks. In 2006 California passed AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, and has recently held the first carbon credit auctions to make it the first state to require the purchase of carbon credits from greenhouse gas emitting businesses. The goal is to lower emissions, through efficiency projects and stricter regulation, back to 1990 levels by 2020. Hopefully, California will set an example to the rest of the world that you can sustain economic development and promote investment while regulating greenhouse emissions simultaneously. When these carbon credits are combined with a diversified alternative energy portfolio and the implementation of efficiency technologies at the personal and industrial levels are fulfilled, concerned citizens are making alternative energy a reality.

The question on everyone’s mind is will we make the right choices in time to restore the balance needed to sustain life on Earth? The showdown between the markets and nature is sure to become more unsettling in 2013. Unfortunately, everyday people are the ones to feel the worst effects from this struggle as the waters rise and business-as-usual looks to profits before people and the planet. Global austerity does not empower people to make the local changes needed and the giant multinationals must look to become part of the solution; to make the needed investment in alternative energy and efficiencies or the climate crisis will continue to worsen beyond what is already projected for the chaotic changes to come.

SIPRI, 11 APR 2011. Press Release. World military spending reached $1.6 trillion in 2010, biggest increase in South America, fall in Europe according to new SIPRI data. Retrieved from http://www.sipri.org/media/pressreleases/2011/milex

Qin, R. Grasman, S., Long, S., Lin, Y., Thomas, M. (Dec 2012) A Framework of Cost-Effectiveness Analysis for Alternative Energy Strategies. Engineering Management Journal. Vol 23, No 4. Retrieved from the Ashford Online Library.

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