A surprising history

There’s nothing new under the sun — least of all, the idea of solar energy.

1883 solar demonstration in Paris

During the 1860s and 1870s, when “peak coal” fears swept across Europe, many people thought that civilization itself could be extinguished. Scientists and engineers insisted that solar energy could extend the industrial revolution indefinitely after coal ran out.

French professor Augustine Mouchot predicted in 1873:

“The time will arrive when the industry of Europe will cease to find those natural  resources, so necessary for it. Petroleum springs and coal mines are not inexhaustible but are rapidly diminishing in many places.  Will man, then, return to the power of water and wind? Or will he emigrate where the most powerful source of heat sends its rays to all?  History will show what will come.”

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Comes silent, flooding in the main…

The attacks on environmental journalism, environmental advocates and sustainable energy proponents seem so strong, so vicious, and so ill-omened in winter of 2014-15, that many people are temped to give up and accept that planetary destruction is inevitable.  But this is why we need the arts and humanities —  history and poetry especially — to help us renew and rekindle the human and humane spirit.  For history, no one compares with Winston Churchill,  relentless old imperialist though he was.   And for poetry …

In the worst moments facing down the most evil empire in history,  Churchill would recite an old Victorian poet,  otherwise long since forgotten, by the name of Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1916).  He read this poem over BBC at the end of his speech on April 27, 1941.

Say not the struggle naught availeth,
The labor and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke conceal’d,
Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
But westward, look, the land is bright!

 

A disappointing political season

In the 2012 election season,  the usual political platitudes once again substituted for serious discussion about our future. Several people said this quite well in the run-up to the balloting that returned President Obama to office.

Denis Hayes, Earth Day co-founder and former leader of the Solar Energy Research Institute, said this in the Seattle Times: 

Utterly lost amid the arguments about unemployment rates, housing starts, and automobile sales are a raft of critical global issues that should be on a president’s desk. As an environmentalist, I’d like to hear a thoughtful discussion about how to use, and constrain, the power our corporations have acquired to change the face of the planet.

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Ethanol needs to be seen in historic perspective

By Bill Kovarik

synthol.closeup_0

1926 cartoon from Ethyl Corp. papers.

The grain ethanol industry has always been controversial.

These days, critics point out that the corn ethanol industry is not going to help avert climate disaster since, at best, it has a slightly positive net energy balance (or carbon footprint).

Fair enough. But the corn ethanol industry was  not originally created as a way to shift to low-carbon fuels

The original ethanol industry provided the main ingredient for the lamp fuel industry in the decades before  kerosene.  This fuel – camphene – was taxed out of existence in the US during the 1860s, but returned with the backing of Henry Ford and Teddy Roosevelt in 1906.

When geologists said oil was  running out just after World War I, ethanol was seen as one important answer.  When engines needed better fuels in the 1920s, ethanol was seen as superior to tetra-ethyl-lead (“leaded gasoline”) octante boosters.  When farmers needed new markets in the 1930s, ethanol was billed as a way to avoid farm relief. And when the Arabs cut off oil supplies to the US in the 1970s, an ethanol industry was built to provide emergency fuel supplies.

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Political attacks on renewable energy

There’s a Washington Post story about “questions being raised” concerning President Obama’s support for renewable energy.

It’s an unusual story from an unusual angle.   By seeing the debate through one lens,  Carol D. Leonnig, Joe Stephens and Alice Crites missed the bigger story about the clash of basic philosophies.

For example, where exactly does the attribution stop in this paragraph?

“This month, a congressional energy subcommittee chairman accused the administration of picking clean-tech “winners and losers” by pouring government money into a sector best determined by free-market forces.”

Does the idea that technology is “best determined by free-market forces” belong to the chairman or to the reporters?

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What comes after ethanol?

By Bill Kovarik
Roanoke Times, Sept. 4, 2011.

The ethanol industry has attracted many critics over the years. Much of the criticism is well meant and should be well taken. The yardsticks that are usually applied to the industry – carbon footprint, biodiversity, competition between food and fuel, government subsidies, air and water quality – are certainly appropriate, even if they are rarely applied equally to all energy industries.

But the critics tend to miss the most important point about the historical reason for the development of the ethanol industry.  The primary reason for blending ethanol in gasoline is NOT to replace Middle Eastern oil. (That was always a secondary issue.)

The reason that today’s corn ethanol industry has become so large is that the oil industry does not have a safe additive to bring gasoline up to 87 octane.

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Ethanol and the V2 rocket

There’s a new fractured history lesson on ethanol hitting the blogs.

Stop the Ethanol Scam,” Roanoke Times March 20, 2011 is one.  “Ethanol a Massive Waste” is  another one. Both fail to take basic historical facts into account.

These commentaries say that the Nazis commandeered “the entire European potato crop in 1944 and turn(ed) it into ethanol to fuel V2 rockets.”  So people starved in order to feed the German rocket program. The historical lesson, they say, is that we are “driving down much the same road with the current ethanol program in America.”

But is the premise remotely realistic? Could the entire European potato crop have been turned into V2 rocket fuel?

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NPR ethanol series Dec. 2010

From NPR: The recent tax cut bill preserves a pretty sweet deal for corn ethanol. It extends a tax subsidy, along with an import tariff supporting a fuel that already enjoys a guaranteed market. But what do taxpayers get for all the help?  In the first of our three-part series on ethanol, Frank Morris of Harvest Public Media reports that the heated debate over ethanol tramples some basic realities.

Ethanol may seem modern, but people throughout Appalachia have been making it for hundreds of years.

“We are known for our moonshine industry,” says science writer Bill Kovarik with a laugh, “very well known for our moonshine industry. It is still flourishing.”

Kovarik, who’s also a professor at Radford University, says that ethanol is, first and foremost, a way to make corn more valuable. More than a century ago, Henry Ford built cars to run on it, with just that in mind.   “So, you could replace the transportation income that farmers used to have by [their] growing the fuel for the cars, instead of growing horses and feed.”

Link to the rest of the story  /  Link to the longer Harvest Media version

Postscript: Bob Dineen of the Renewable Fuels Association had an interesting take on this series:

“Where in this series is the comparison to Big Oil?  You can’t talk, weigh, or dismiss an alternative without talking about the problem it is trying to solve.  So where, perhaps in the final piece, will we hear NPR discuss the billions in subsidies and tax breaks that go to Big Oil conglomerates and dangerous dictators in oil rich countries?”

The ongoing controversy over ethanol

By Bill Kovarik

Remember all the cute news items two years ago about how the price of movie popcorn just went up $2 thanks to ethanol, or how your grocery cart (or your wallet) just got lighter, thanks to ethanol? Turns out, it was mostly fiction.

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Recognizing the complexity of biofuels issues

By Bill Kovarik and Scott Sklar

At a time when the need for public understanding of environmental science and energy technology issues has never been greater, the debate over biofuels illustrates a serious problem.

Because the issues are extraordinarily complex, participants in the debate often resort to misleading oversimplifications even when their concerns are quite legitimate. Continue reading