Monday, August 14, 2006

Finding Connections

About the time of the Iranian Revolution and the second phase of the first energy crisis, PBS ran a documentary series called, "Connections," by a British journalist named James Burke. I was still at an impressionable age, and it changed the way I looked at the world. Gone was the neat progression of science taught in school, replaced by a chaotic and--though no one would have used the word in 1979--heavily networked set of successively dependent connections. A clever op-ed in the New York Times last week argued for a similar view of energy evolution, driven by our present view of scarcity. While the author, a Cornell engineering professor, raises some excellent points, I wish he had followed his argument to its implications for the way we approach alternative energy. The issue isn't just innovation, but how we choose to focus it.

Consider ethanol. My posting a week ago on that topic elicited many excellent comments, more than any subject I've tackled in months. Viewed through the lens of Dr. Sass's article, one of the main objections to our present corn-based approach to ethanol is the paucity of innovation it inspires. Extracting alcohol from food crops is something we've been doing for millennia. While the process has improved, and can be improved further, it's unlikely to yield the kind of breakthrough necessary to replace petroleum. Cellulosic ethanol production, on the other hand, offers precisely that potential, though it remains to be demonstrated at the necessary scale and cost. Cellulosic ethanol represents a radical innovation, and the breakthroughs that make it possible didn't come out of energy research at all, but as spinoffs of the biotech revolution, Connections-style.

Some of those posting comments here favor batteries over liquid fuels, effectively arguing that if electricity storage can match the energy density of gasoline--one of the factors that enabled it to beat its competitors at the dawn of the automobile age--then the inherent efficiency advantages of electric motors over internal combustion engines will win out. The Tesla Roadster I mentioned recently is a step in that direction. Much work remains, however, not the least in overcoming consumer apprehension about all-electric vehicles.

Hydrogen still remains an attractive option, but it must overcome many complex challenges to even compete with our present energy/transportation system, let alone supplant it. These include efficient hydrogen production from non-fossil fuel sources, safe and practical hydrogen storage and distribution, cheap-but-powerful fuel cells; the list goes on. But even if all of this research never makes hydrogen-powered cars a viable choice for consumers, there is at least a chance that some novel technology or combination of technologies will emerge out of this complexity and address our energy problems in unexpected ways. The Apollo Program delivered only six moon landings, but it gave us a new world here on earth.

We need serious, practical answers to the energy dilemmas we face today. At the same time, though, we should understand that relying on simplistic choices such as corn-based ethanol can only buy us time for the real solutions to blossom and mature. Trading geological and geopolitical limitations on energy for agricultural limits only makes sense if the end-game is something else, entirely. Perhaps someone is making the necessary connections to set that up, right now.

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