Thursday, September 18, 2008

Big Ideas

Texas is big! It took me two days to drive through it. I traveled through the back roads from Santa Fe, down to the Austin area, and then from Austin to Louisiana. I took my time, but still. Two days! I stayed in a little town called Sweetwater the first night. (Yes, go ahead, say that out loud, with a southern drawl, Sweetwater, Texas). As I was waiting to check into Motel 6 (ok, I know, not sustainable but I saw nary a campground anywhere, and not any other place I’d want to camp out), I was leafing through the catalog on the counter and came across a local news article quoting T. Boone Pickens saying: Oil is passé – all the smart oil men, like him, were getting into wind power. I had been driving for what seemed like at least an hour through the biggest windmill field I’ve ever seen. Per the article, West Texas is “the fourth largest wind producing country” in the world. Hmm.

Pickens has a plan. Replace the 22% of electricity that is powered by natural gas right now, with wind power. Then use the natural gas in cars instead of gasoline. That could eliminate the need for $300 billion (out of $750 billion) in foreign oil for gas. Well, the math seems sort of right, but the idea is awful complicated. Let's take a closer look at its merits.

Pickens doesn’t take into consideration we might run out of natural gas

or that there might be better fuel sources for transportation, like algae, or biofuel from sources like, say, the prairie grasses that used to cover hundreds of miles of West Texas before the cattle ate it and the oil companies came and then the windmills and…..

I had some trouble seeing the relevance of much of his logic, but it was refreshing to hear a guy like T. Boone Pickens say we need to get off the teat of foreign oil, and we need leadership that will facilitate that.

So are windmills really the best sustainable fuel choice, or are we just substituting one bad solution for another, less bad?

Apparently the vibration from windmills can cause health problems in some people. Maybe wildlife too – one can imagine what vibrations might be caused in the ground around the windmill. And some would argue they are not very aesthetic.

Hundreds or thousands of miles of high voltage transmission lines are needed in order to get the power on line - most windmills are located in remote locations. These lines also pose environmental and health problems.

Other countries have chosen less "grid-locked" solutions, such as solar roof panels or some of the new hi-tech small sized wind turbines that can provide power to individual homes. There are many advantages to creating local renewable power sources instead of huge remote fields of solar arrays and windmills hundreds of miles away from the cities they are powering, but those with vested interests in retaining controlling interest in energy production are of course opposed to such local solutions.

The land under the windmills did not look particularly happy. They are huge, and fairly far apart. Roads led to and fro between the windmills and they broke up the brush - no intact ecosystems there! I’m sure that most people would look at the West Texas landscape and say, “Waal, there’s nothin there but brush, Pete! Why not put windmills there? ” Most people would agree that West Texas is not the source of the most important or diverse ecosystems in the country. Yet, this is what the land used to look like, before unsustainable cattle ranching and other activities decimated the ecosystems:

“In May of 1854, J. Pope's report on the exploration of the region for a route for the Pacific Railroad stated "….but by far the richest and most beautiful district of country I have ever seen, in Texas or elsewhere, is that watered by the Trinity and its tributaries. Occupying east and west a belt of one hundred miles in width, with about equal quantities of prairie and timber, intersected by numerous clear, fresh streams and countless springs, with a gently undulating surface of prairie and oak openings, it presents the most charming views, as of a country in the highest state of cultivation, and you are startled at the summit of each swell of the prairie with a prospect of groves, parks and forests, with intervening plains of luxuriant grass, over which the eye in vain wanders in search of the white village or the stately house, which seem alone wanting to be seen".

“Considerable information about historical Trans-Pecos landscapes (prior to Anglo settlement) has been accumulated from survey records, journals, photographs, and various other records from early explorers of the region. All early accounts provide evidence that the Trans-Pecos grasslands were quite expansive and that grasslands were lightly interspersed with shrubs and desert succulents. Waste-high grass was reported along Terlingua Creek and in Tornillo Flats, where eroded desert exists today. Extensive grass cover was described in the Big Bend area about 1900 when high numbers of livestock were being grazed in the region. In 1885 Terlingua Creek was described as a running creek full of beaver and lined with cottonwood trees. Evidently, mesquite was not nearly as abundant or widespread as today, existing only as scattered shrubs among the grasslands and occurring in small isolated stands. “

It brings one to the philosophical question, are giant wind farms the best possible solution to our energy problems? There is no argument that wind power is far better for the environment than coal or oil. Is it the best and highest use of the land, however?

This is a time in our history where it can be especially advantageous to get outside the box and start thinking in ways we're not used to. Creative thinkers agree that the way to get better at that is to practice (that does work magically, by the way). It is an exciting time to be alive, a time of great opportunity in the midst of great change. It is not enough, though, for ideas to be big. They must be based on observation and thoughtfulness, and the willingness to choose a simple solution if it really is the best solution - like letting the grass grow.

That might be way better, from a number of angles, than complex, expensive, major structural changes, like covering hundreds of miles of prime prairie land with giant metal windmills and high voltage power lines, and changing our entire transport fuel infrastructure over so we can provide yet another nonrenewable resource (natural gas) that will sooner or later run out. Pickens is from an old school era that thinks big, but not sustainably. His "solution" gives a problem to the people that use the energy (with raised costs for infrastructure), and to future generations (because we are still using nonrenewable fuels).

There are finer considerations as well. A horizon filled with fields of gently swaying mixed grasses and wildflowers, filled with birds and other wildlife, is certainly a more naturally aesthetic solution than monolithic windmills covering denuded plateaus swathed with not much more than tire track patterns.

Can we do that, America? Can we come up with solutions that are aesthetic, affordable, sustainable, simple, easy to implement, good for the environment, and good for us too?

Keep in mind that mixed prairie grasses not only provide a highly renewable and efficient source of biofuels, but if harvested properly, can also aid in water retention and raised water tables, soil retention and remediation, and increased ecosystem diversity. Prairie grass makes a great carbon sink, meaning fields of “fuel” could be reducing carbon emissions that contribute to global climate change. And prairie grasses grow just about anywhere, even on depleted soils where corn can’t grow.

….it's not monoculture crops like corn, soybeans or even switchgrass, but rather the "sea of grass" that fell to the plow in the 19th century that harbors a bright hope for the 21st. Mixtures of native perennial grasses and other flowering plants require little energy or fertilizer to turn into fuel, yield up to 238 percent more usable energy per acre than any single species and can even lower atmospheric carbon dioxide by storing it in their roots or in soil.

"Biofuels made from high-diversity mixtures of prairie plants can reduce global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere," says Tilman. "Even when grown on infertile soils, they can provide a substantial portion of global energy needs, and leave fertile land for food production."

According to the research, biofuels from mixed prairie grasses could replace about 13 percent of global petroleum consumption for transportation and 19 percent of global electricity consumption. This could eliminate 15 percent of current global carbon dioxide emissions.

The beauty of mixed prairie grasses, say the researchers, is that, unlike corn, they can grow in old farmland or in marginal, degraded lands with little or no application of water or fertilizers. The challenge is finding enough such land.

Well, gee, let me think. Where might there be enough land?

It took two days to drive through Texas…..


1 comment:

Zachary Stowasser said...

great post cory - nice to see the link to alcohol can be a gas. i ordered the book and dvd - its sitting here waiting for me to watch it!

Permaculture really has many of the solutions, doesn't it?

I heard a quote somewhere that we cannot solve todays problems with yesterdays thinking. or something like that.. ;)