Book Review – The Vertical Farm

I switched gears this week and spent some time learning about ways the world can feed a burgeoning population. One emerging idea is through a “vertical farm,” an idea that has been promoted by Dr. Dickson Despommier, a former professor of microbiology and public health in environmental sciences at Columbia. He recently authored, “The Vertical Farm Feeding the World in the 21st Century,” which lays out the idea of growing our food vertically in greenhouse skyscrapers, rather than spread out over hundreds of millions of acres of farmland.

This idea has really captured my fancy and got my head spinning around all the ways it could be carried out. But let me take a step back. Today, our food travels on average 1,500 miles from field to table. Crazy. Much of our produce and fruits come from places like Mexico and South America. Wouldn’t it be cool if they could come from your own city?

That is exactly what Despommier is promoting. In the middle of an urban area could be a “vertical farm” that grows produce, fruits and grains and houses things such as fish farms. These future farms would grow our food year round while the excess waste, or biomass could be used to produce bioelectricity and biofuels. In fact, Despommier says that in some cases, a vertical farm could have up to five harvests per year.

He writes that ideally, they would be cheap to build, modular, durable, easily maintained, and safe to operate. A vertical farm would mitigate external influences on crops such as too much rain or drought and disease along with the need for fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. Vertical farms would provide well-paying jobs and improve economics. He also believes they should be independent of economic subsidies and outside support once they are up and running and they should be profitable. Continue reading

Book Review – Energy, Convenient Solutions

I read an unusual book this week. “Energy, Convenient Solutions,” by Howard Johnson. The book was part Energy 101, part manifesto, part conspiracy theory. It began with a look at various forms of energy ranging from fossil-fuels to biofuels – to nuclear energy. From there, Johnson laid out his manifesto, per se, or his ideas on energy, our current state and what the future could or should look like. The end of the book reviewed factors that make it difficult to effect change as well as highlighted several “hate campaigns” that have been lobbied against big oil and nuclear energy.

Johnson says the real purpose of the book is to present many different ideas about the generation, transport and use of energy. “The study of these ideas and the efforts to make them into realities can result in excellent and viable solutions in years, instead of decades. Creative solutions are sure to be found that require few and inexpensive infrastructure changes and by using both new and existing technologies.”

Now, before I continue, some of you will accuse me of being in the pockets of Big Oil. I’m not. I’m simply reviewing the author’s book and the thoughts contained therein. What makes the diversity of energy books so compelling is the fact that each author has his or her own ideas, predictions and solutions.

Speaking of predictions, Johnson outlines a few in his book. First, he notes that the largest energy growth sector is expected to be in electricity and the largest growth product will be nuclear energy followed by geothermal. He believes there will be a decline in coal-fired power plants unless carbon sequestration technologies come a reality, and also believes wind and solar energy will require long-term substantial subsidies to compete, and even so, may never be cost competitive. In addition, he predicts hydropower will stay fairly stagnant due to environmental concerns and finally believes electric vehicles will dominate and vehicles fueled by liquids (such as gas or biofuels) will be phased out. Needless to say, like so many others, Johnson does not believe first generation biodiesel or ethanol is a solution but does have hope for things such as algae-based biofuels. Continue reading

Book Review – Life Without Oil

Woe is a country who can’t break its dependence on foreign oil. But how do you make such a bold move when our entire society is built upon its wares? And even more so, how do you break the chains when there are no other alternatives? This are some of the topics discussed in this week’s book, “Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift To A New Energy Future,” by Steve Hallett with John Wright. Hallett is a professor in the department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Purdue and Wright is an energy and environmental journalist.

The premise of the book is that the world is running out of oil while at the same time depleting itself of its natural resources. These two issues can combine to cause destruction and complete collapse of a society. The book begins by highlighting some of the societies that have disappeared due to lack of resources whether it be water or trees or others. One of the most famous case studies he uses is that of Easter Island, now owned by Chile, and the irony that although the people knew their future was in jeopardy due to diminished resources, they used them all anyway. Will this be society today?

Hallett is not a fan of biofuels as a solution to our problems. He also believes renewable energy, such as wind or solar, will only become mainstream when it is the only option. He also doesn’t think we will be laughing 30, 40, 50 years from now about how peak oil and climate change were myths.

In terms of the future energy sources, Hallett believes it will be one in which nuclear and hydrogen play major roles. Continue reading

Book Review – The H Factor

Reading books about the renewable energy industry shouldn’t be all about education. That’s why this week I took a “mini” vacation and read the novel “The H Factor,” by L.E. Indianer. This fast pace story closely follows the triumph of two college students attending Georgia Tech University who using hydrogen, create the energy silver bullet. But basking in their invention doesn’t last long – the creators’ lives are threatened by global interests who don’t want hydrogen to succeed.

The students created a patented, cylindrical contraption that cost effectively and efficiently converts water to hydrogen with no emissions. Rather than paying the $1 million plus for a real hydrogen car (the hydrogen fuel cell cars are less), the students’ discovery can be put on any car or truck for less than $10k. For all things oil, this game changer must be quashed at all costs.

Hydrogen is one of the most common and combustible elements known to man and many believe that someday technology will be able to manipulate it in a means that is could save the world. Great premise for a senior thesis deducted the two main characters, students Marc and Gerri who had this discussion to kick off their project.

“Anything that requires oil-based fuel today needs to be replaced by some other energy source, or a combination of sources. There’s no question about it, and H could be the starting point for us,” said Marc.

“Can you imagine not being dependent on foreign oil…oil that produces the billions of dollars that militant Islam is trying to use to destroy our country?” asked Gerri.

Sound familiar? This is the battle cry of the renewable energy industry.

Well needless to say, evil oil wants the world to be dependent on its products and the lengths the oil companies and foreign regime make for some high drama that hits very close to home. While this was a fun, fictional read, lets hope that Indianer is not a clairvoyant, at least in the sense that a silver bullet would be welcome, but not the war that comes with it.

Book Review – Switching to Solar

I’m writing this post, sitting outside, overlooking a pool sparkling in the sunshine. OK, not really but it gets your mind in the right place – a sunny day. Solar energy has been gaining ground in both the U.S. and especially Europe so I thought it was high-time I learn more about the history of solar. “Switching to Solar,” by Bob Johnstone should become the industry and consumer reference to the worldwide solar story.

I have to admit that reading books on energy, environment and ag can be a bit dry regardless of the veracity of the information. But Johnstone broke the mold with his engaging story telling, compelling information and insights on the solar industry. It probably helps that he is a journalist, but he takes us through the history of solar weaving through Europe and taking a stop in Germany and coming back to the States – a country that was winning and now is losing, the solar technology race to countries overseas such as China.

There are several issues that are discussed in the book that are of special importance to the solar industry: rate of conversion, subsidies/tariffs, industry viability, legislation, and technology. He also talks about overcoming utility resistance to renewable energy and their adoption to both energy efficiency strategies and the adoption of renewable energy. Two areas he didn’t discuss in detail are the challenges with storage and transmission lines/ smart grid issues.

He writes, “For utilities, promoting energy efficiency was an unnatural act. Thus far, their entire rationale had been to encourage customers to use more energy, not less. their rate structure was designed to reward consumption, by charging customers less for the additional kilowatt-hours they used. Their domestic sales departments came up with promotional gimmicks to encourage usage. Utility salespeople gleefully handed out free hair dryers to their customers.”

See this ladies. It’s the utility companies’ fault that we’re contributing to global climate change with our old school hairdryers. Continue reading

Book Review – Energy Myths & Realities

This week I decided to bone up on some energy 101 so I read “Energy Myths & Realities” by Vaclav Smil, an energy scientist. He discusses eight myths and attempts to set the record straight by disseminating the true facts around the issues. He believes several of the myths have been mired in the past while others are perpetuated by the media.

For example here is one myth that he demystifies: Electric cars will replace conventional cars in the near future. The reality according to Smil: Electric cars are expensive, their adoption rate will be slow, and internal combustion engines will dominate the market for decade to come. He also believes that EVs will not provide much, if any, energy savings.

So why does it matter if there is discourse among energy advocates? Because, says Smil, these incorrect facts and fallacies are hampering the development of effective new energy policies and wasting time and money that could be better used in pursuit of a constructive, scientific approach to the global energy challenge.

Here are some other myths that Smil addresses, all dished up as solutions, or part of a solution for our energy woes.

• The world will soon run out of oil.
• Carbon sequestration is the solution to global climate change.
• Ethanol will replace gasoline as a significant source of automobile fuel.
• Wind power will soon become the world’s leading source of electricity.

I’ll play my hand here and agree with Smil that carbon sequestration is not a solution. In fact, I believe it is a multi-billion dollar farce. Yet where I diverge with Smil is while he believes various forms of alternative energy should have no role, or will only play a small role, I think it’s shortsighted to ignore parts of the energy portfolio that are right in front of us. But I digress. Continue reading

Book Review – World On The Edge

I spent Earth Day 30,000 feet up and I must admit that there was a tiny part of me that felt guilty. So to make myself feel better, I read “World On The Edge,” by Lester Brown.  The book focuses on how to prevent environmental and economic collapse and operates on the assumption that it’s not “if” global warming will change business as usual, but when. It should be noted that Brown is the founder and president of Earth Policy Institute and has been advocating for change relating to environmental concerns such as climate change for more than 30 years.

In the first part of the book, Brown lays out the problems at hand including falling water tables and shrinking harvests, eroding soils and expanding deserts and finishes with a discussion about the effect of rising temperatures including the melting of ice and glaciers and food security. He notes that several researchers conducted a study whereby they aggregated the use of earth’s natural resources including CO2 and discovered that we first surpassed the earth’s regenerative capacity around 1980. In 1999, global demands on the earth’s natural systems exceeded sustainable yields by 20 percent and today it would take 1.5 Earths to sustain our current consumption.

Next Brown begins a discussion of the consequences as a result of our foundation in peril. He discusses rising food prices and food scarcity, environmental refugees (think Hurricane Katrina where more than 300,000 people were displaced and many never went back) and failed states such as Somalia and Iraq. During the first part of the book, the big link, or the big disaster, is failed agriculture. He notes that many archeologists have determined that many civilizations that disappeared did so because of food shortages and he believes this is the weak link for today’s civilization.

He uses the 2008-2009 “food bubble” as an example. This was when energy prices hit record highs and food prices also hit record highs. He explained that with countries producing fuel from food crops, such as the U.S. producing ethanol from corn, energy prices/fuel prices are now directly tied to food prices.

“The question is not whether the food bubble will burst but when,” says Brown. Continue reading

Book Review – The Biochar Solution

Can biochar singlehandedly save the world from all of its carbon dioxide, global warming woes? Well, the jury is still out but there may be some potential. This I learned from reading the book, “The Biochar Solution: Climate Farming and Climate Change,” by Albert Bates. First, I should explain what biochar is. Biochar is charcoal, a cellulosic material that has been pyrolyzed (to pyrolyze something you burn it a low oxygen environment, such as a kiln, burning off everything but the carbon). The resulting charcoal is black and largely devoid of any nutritional value, yet it can be burned in a high oxygen environment without producing much smoke. These attributes make it a good option for burning in cooking stoves.

But Bates believes the real value of biochar lies in that it has a unique ability to condition soil. Bates explains that if it is turned in a nutrient pile and then tilled into the ground, it immediately becomes colonized by soil microbes. These microbes attract fungi, which connect to the roots of the plants, carrying nutrients to the place they are most needed. Biochar is also a water solution – it provides a reservoir and conduit for soil moisture, soaking up water from oversaturated areas and moving it to dyer areas (it can also be used to purify water). Bates says that one gram of charcoal has the surface area of one small house, or 1,000 to 2,500 square meters, because of all its micropores. In terms of soil health, after several years, biochar helps soil return to its natural state and eliminates the need for inputs such as nitrogen or phosphorous – another major environmental benefit.

There is also a connection between biochar and biofuels. When converting biomass to biofuels, not all of the biomass is consumed. At this point, the remaining biomass can be burned and turned into biochar and then the biochar can be tilled into the biomass fields to aid in soil sustainability. In this example, biochar becomes both a biofuels and agriculture solution.

There are several views of biochar one being those who truly believe that biochar alone can reduce CO2 emissions faster and more completely than any other solution. Continue reading

Book Review – Climate of Corruption

In the past several years, there seems to be a growing number of people who believe that global warming is a very orchestrated political and environmental hoax. As hype around Earth Day is growing (April 22, 2011), I thought it would be interesting to read, “Climate of Corruption: Politics and Power Behind the Global Warming Hoax,” by Larry Bell. Now Larry Bell is no more a climate scientist than Al Gore. He is a space architect and doesn’t pretend to be anything different. But Bell believes there is a conspiracy amongst us relating to the horrors of climate change that center around fossil-fuel CO2 emissions.

He writes, “Understand that the real impetus behind the cooked numbers and doomspeak of the global warmers has little to do with the state of the environment and much to do with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth redistribution (“social justice”).

Bell acknowledges that climate change is real – only that it is not man-made- and says that no one can reliably predict what Earth’s global climate will be in a decade or longer. What he sees as the real problem is the global energy supply dilemma, one that he believes has no simple solution.

Throughout the book, Bell lays out his case for his way of thinking beginning with “outing” those who are “cooking the climate books.” This includes Al Gore as well as the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In other words, he “sets the record straight.” From there, he highlights those that he believes are political hijackers of science – meaning policy makers who have molded climate science research to support their own agenda – mainly cap and trade. (I fondly call this crap and raid.) Bell argues that all forms of cap and trade are scams. Continue reading

Book Review – The Green Miracle

This week I read the book called “The Green Miracle,” by Clayton McNeff who is one of the creators of the Mcgyan Process. It’s the story of how in less than four years, with the inkling of an idea from a college student, a new multi-feedstock production technology was created to produce biodiesel.

In 2006, McNeff was contacted by one of his former undergraduate college professors, Arlin Gyberg, at Augsburg College located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on behalf of one of his chemistry students, Brian Krohn. Krohn, a sophomore at the time, and now Rhodes Scholar, was going to conduct a 10-week summer research project on biodiesel. Krohn wanted to pursue producing biodiesel using a catalyst after his research uncovered some relatively unknown papers relating to the subject. As McNeff explains, a catalyst is something that speeds up a reaction and does not get consumed in a chemical reaction.

At the time, current biodiesel production was done by a chemical process called “based catalyzed transesterification.” In this process, oil and alcohol are chemically combined to produce esters (biodiesel) in a batch process where the reactants are put in a large tank, heated an stirred vigorously.

Krohn wanted to try using zirconia particles to catalyze the biodiesel reaction and although his experiments didn’t work, he sent along some papers to McNeff and that got his mind working in overtime – to the point where he called a meeting during which he suggested they try the very experiment that led to the Mcgyan Process discovery. The name came about after the research team that created it – Clayton McNeff, Arlin Gyberg and Dr. Ben Yan.

So how is this process different? It’s a continuous process where you combine an alcohol like ethanol and an oil like corn oil and run it through a reactor filled with a metal oxide catalyst. Then you add heat and pressure to the reactor and in a few seconds contact time the reaction is complete and you have biodiesel. This is all done without chemicals or water. And the Mcgyan Process has yet to meet an oil feedstock it couldn’t covert to ASTM standard biodiesel.

If you can shorten a less than four year story even more, after thousands of experiments to understand the chemistry of what they had, the team built a pilot scale facility and from there, a commercial scale 3 million gallon plant called Ever Cat Fuels (Ever Catalyst). In the middle of all of this, McNeff published papers about the findings, raised money, visited Washington, D.C., applied for DOE Loan Guarantees (which are nearly impossible to get for cutting edge, first-time technologies) and did all of this during the worst recession that this country has seen in 80 years.

While McNeff talks about how he believes this discovery and the consequent journey was “meant to be” it was not without its hardships. That’s in part what led he and his family to donate 5 cents from every gallon of biodiesel produced from Ever Cat Fuels to go to build a new science building at Augsburg College – the place where it all began.

I would be remiss to say that there are hundreds, if not thousands of researchers and entrepreneurs out there looking for the next breakthrough. It’s easy to get frustrated. The next time you do. Take a moment to read The Green Miracle. It won’t take long to inspire you and along the way, you’ll be reassured that America does in fact possess the willpower and the ingenuity to bring solutions to market to address our energy crisis today.

You can hear the story of The Green Miracle in Clayton McNeff’s own words in an excerpt of my interview with him: The Green Miracle

Book Review – The Forbidden Fuel

This week I read “The Forbidden Fuel: A History of Power Alcohol,” by authors Hal Bernton, William Kovarik and Scott Sklar. The book was originally published in 1982 and then republished in 2010 with a new Foreward added as well as a new Introduction added that gives the readers an update on where the ethanol industry is today. This book is absolutely the best history of alcohol fuel, aka ethanol, that I’ve ever read. But that being said, the reader must beware, that when reading the book, it was written in 1982 and the information and issues delivered were from that era. So when the authors discuss net energy, water use, etc., those facts and figures were the most up to date in 1982, not the most current in 2011.

On that note, here is what I found most interesting about the information in the book. The same issues that the industry is fighting today, food versus fuel, indirect land use, net energy, and more, are the same issues that the industry was fighting 40 years ago. In fact, some of these issues date back more than 60 plus years ago. The petroleum industry has been using the same arguments against using ethanol in fuel since the 1930s. So what I find most disturbing is that the ethanol industry has not been able to successfully fight these issues in literally 80 years, and therefore the oil industry has had no need to change its game.

The authors write that the first backlash from the oil industry came in 1933 when Iowa proposed a mandatory blending of ethyl alcohol in gasoline. The Iowa Petroleum Council printed a pamphlet headlined, “The alcohol-gas scheme outrages common sense.” The pamphlet warned that blending what today is known as E10 would constitute a raid on Iowa motorists’ pocketbooks. As the campaign progressed, the media began writing articles, perpetuated by the American Petroleum Institute (API) that “farmers would make motorists pay for farm relief.” In essence, with the debate going on today surrounding VEETC (the blender’s credit) and other ethanol incentives, the anti-ethanol movement is still attacking farmers and telling American drivers they are subsidizing American farmers.

Another interesting element of the book was to learn about the continual rise and falls of ethanol. With those rise and falls, the industry enthused optimism about how much fuel they would produce using what types of feedstocks. Researchers have had high hopes for aquaculture (kelp, algae, etc.) for more than 40 years. They have also been researching the potential for biomass. Needless to say, none of the optimism has come to fruition, but I do believe that now more than ever, the industry is truly on a breakthrough with advanced biofuels.

I believe that the industry needs to go back and read this book. Not for the science per say, but for the history of ethanol. The industry is fighting a very difficult battle and will learn a great deal from this book. If anything, you’ll take away what has worked and not worked in ethanol’s public communication battles.

Book Review – The Frugal Superpower

This week I read the book “The Frugal Superpower,” by Michael Mandelbaum. For much of the beginning, I couldn’t quite figure out what this book had to do with energy. But I kept on going and was rewarded by some true insights as to other good reasons why reducing our dependence on Middle Eastern oil can help our country out of some if its current mess.

In the book, Mandelbaum takes on the challenge of laying out why America’s expansive foreign policy is coming to an end and the consequences of such an action. Let’s face it, America needs to tighten it’s purse strings – the country has phenomenal deficits, is still trying to recover from a financial crash and its entitlement programs such as Social Security, are running out of money. So what should go by the wayside? America’s underwriting of global security that dates back to the 1940s.

Mandelbaum is not naive to what could happen when the U.S. stops fighting the wars of others, but he is also very aware of what will happen if the U.S. continues to fight all the wars of others. It will put our “Superpower” status in more jeopardy. Whereas realigning our foreign policy could actually strengthen our position.

The war in Iraq is over oil – a commodity that our country cannot live without.

Mandelbaum writes, “Because the United States accounts for so much of the world’s oil usage, a major reduction in American consumption could lower overall consumption enough to reduce the global price of the commodity. This would decrease the money accruing to the governments that depend heavily, in some cases almost exclusively, on the sale of oil to finance their operations. Iran is one such country. The sale of oil account for 80 percent of its annual revenue. Reducing the income of the Islamic Republic would give its rulers less money to spend on the policies that threaten the rest of the region and the world….Restricting the stream of Iranian oil revenue would have an even more powerful effect on the regime: It would undermine its internal stability.” Continue reading

Book Review – What Environmentalists Need to Know About Economics

This week I took a stab at learning a little about economics and its role in the various environmental issues including global climate change, air pollution and over fishing. “What Environmentalists Need to Know About Economics,” by Jason Scorse, is a book that, using various economic theories, analyzes the three most important sources of environmental problems: market failure, the tragedy of the commons, and the underprovisioning of public goods.

One of the things that I found interesting was that Scorse explained that one of the first principles of free markets is that for them to work effectively, the full costs of an activity must be borne by the involved parties. For example, many types of air and water pollutants exact a significant price on human health and or degrade ecoysytems, but these costs are not factored in the cost of production or at the consumer level. These costs are known as externalities and these lead to market failure. This is a common argument you hear when people talk about the “true cost of oil.”

Scorse notes that if we lived in a world where prices fully captured environmental costs, our entire economies would look vastly different. He writes, “…we would have different modes of transportation, different layouts for our cities and towns, different dietary habits, and consumer goods would likely contain much less toxic material. Prices of environmentally harmful goods would rise and much more R&D would go into alternatives, thereby decreasing their price. In such a world society’s resources would be invested in those things which bring the greatest social value.”

In a section of the book, Scorse discusses in detail how two current proposed U.S. environmentally polices would work: cap and trade or an environmental tax. While people are inherently opposed to either scenario, he does a great job explaining how each scenario would work, the pros and cons, and the possible outcomes of each. I should note that cap and trade is already at work in the utility industry so the mechanism is already in place for cap and trade for GHG emissions, or as I like to call it, crap and raid. Continue reading

Book Review – Why We Hate The Oil Companies

Two, four, six, eight, who do we love to hate? The oil companies!

Despite my story lead, I was not a cheerleader in another life but I couldn’t get that cheer out of my head while I read this week’s book, “Why We Hate The Oil Companies Straight Talk From An Energy Insider,” by John Hofmeister. I recently gave Mr. Hofmeister some ink when he predicted that the country would see $5 per gallon of gas within the next 10 years so I thought, hey, I should read his book. See what’s he’s all about. He is, after all, the former president of Shell Oil Company.

What is Hofmeister all about? Bringing affordable, clean and sustainable energy to all Americans. He writes, “The truth is that affordable energy is essential for American economic growth. It is essential for our national security and position in world leadership. And it is necessary to maintain our quality of life.” He continues by saying affordable energy and environmental sustainability are challenges that require immediate attention.

Who is in charge of leading the way to affordable energy?  The oil and utility companies? Government? American Citizens? The answer is not so black and white as Hofmeister explains. No one believes the oil companies – they are ranked 24 out of 24 in the industry “Who do you trust” poll and the government is ranked at 22. Not swell by any standards. Then we have American citizens who have been fed “information, misinformation and no information” and they are still electing politicians who have spent 40 years not making good energy policy decisions. We Americans have bad voting histories.

So what do we have? Hofmeister says “there is an energy shortage, but there is no shortage of energy.” Continue reading

Joanna’s Best Books of 2010

There are a few things I have learned over the last two years of reviewing books. First, no matter how much you “dislike”, or disagree with an author, you always learn something from him or her  – always. Second, there are always two sides to every story and we all need to do a better job of learning more about both sides.

With those thoughts, now onto the real purpose of this blog: my top books of 2010.

Best Economic Book: The Economics of Food by Patrick Westhoff

Best Environmental Book: Green Gone Wrong by Heather Rogers

Best Energy Book: The End of Energy Obesity by Peter Tertzakian

Best Global Warming Conspiracy Book: Energy & Climate Wars by Peter C. Glover and Michael Economides

Most Fun to Read: No Impact Man by Colin Beavan

Best Book of 2010: The Boy who Harnessed the Wind: by William Kamkwanba

If you have an idea for a book that you would like me to review in 2011, please send me an email at Happy Holidays, thanks for reading DomesticFuel and may 2011 bring you much health and happiness.