Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Babe Ruth of Soy Beans and a Story of Competitve Corn Growing

I've been meaning to put this Wired Magazine article up for over a month.

Here is a great story talking about real industrialized commercial agriculture. Its rare that you get a lay person's article about mono-culture agriculture and what they are wrestling with. The perspective touched on here is one worth reading.

Especially looking at the every expanding productivity of US soil, seeds, chemicals, manpower and on the ground intellect that is our mainstream agriculture.

One excerpt that really gets to the heart of the new development of GMO crops that caught my eye is below.

Cullers never went to college, but he rises at 3:30 each morning to study plant genetics online. Right now, he's urging Pioneer to genetically weave a bit of stiffening fiber into soybean stalks. Cullers plants 300,000 soybeans per acre, double the national average. In these super-dense fields, he explains, soy plants grow taller, fighting for sunlight. "They fall down a lot," he says, "and you lose photosynthesis. The trifoliates don't pump nutrients to the beans. And you get disease, too. It's crowded and humid out there, down low."

Something about it reminds me more about the development of a race car with experience in the Pit rather than the further development of an agricultural crop. This is obviously engineering with a specificity reserved up till now for mechanical systems not organisms.

NOTE: To those who are adamant and hostile to GMO. I understand, I've seen and read both sides of this debate in depth for years. Being on the sidelines and outside of the issue I am an agricultural agnostic. I do buy certified organic and local food as a rule as well. Please don't flame me just because I gave ink to what I view as a relevant article.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Oregon a Geothermal Power Wild West

Yeah I know. The title is a little bigger than the real article linked below. Either way I like using "Wild West" any time I can.

I am not as familiar with Geothermal power as I would like. Regardless its kind of outside the main buzz and gossip circles for biofuels, wind and solar power here in Oregon. I've never met a single person developing or involved in any way with a geothermal project. Though again and again I here from other sources (such as the Oregonian the most blunt of industry reporters) that Oregon is poised to be a player in geothermal projects.

Over the weekend I cam across an interesting Oregonian article from back in April. It just kind of popped up while I was looking from an article I had just read in the print edition. Thought I would share it. The best portion is a simple description of what geothermal power really is:

Modern geothermal power plants are more efficient than past versions. They draw hot water from the ground, using it to heat another fluid -- often isopentane -- that turns to vapor at a lower temperature than water. The isopentane vapor drives a turbine, which spins a generator to produce power. Afterward, the isopentane cools and condenses back into liquid form so it can go through the heating cycle again. The water, meanwhile, is reinjected into the ground to be reheated again.

Unfortunately the article does not talk about the specifics of what makes geothermal profitable. What the scale required would be. And of course other types of harnessed uses. My old trusty Wikipedia on the other hand has a little bit more and a few promising links. But no real discussion of cost of production and the capital cost of building a plant.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Oregon Transmission Lines

I came across this really good statewide image of Oregon's wind resources and transmission system (thanks to the 25x25 Coallition). The transmission system being a critical item to refer back to from time to time. With all this talk of potential actually having a road to market is even more critical than if the wind blows, the tide rolls, or the sun shines.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Whole Energy in the News

My Google Alerts shot back an interesting article.  Reading it I see one thing at play.  Atul and my friends at Whole Energy have walked head first into a political hornets nest.  

"They always try to put it on consent," said Mark Stechbart, outspoken biodiesel plant critic. "They hijacked a 12-year-old environmental impact report to gloss over the issues. I don't think Whole Energy has the finances to do this. The city is buying into a real bad fiscal situation. If they believe this is a legitimate thing to do, they should have known about this months ago and had a full public hearing. It's another midnight, last-minute (Mayor Jim) Vreeland deal." 

It looks like there are powerful players in this project rooting for their failure in an effort to take political swipes an the Mayor responsible for getting their project into place.  I know talking with Atul and Kevin from Whole Energy this project is a huge opportunity and a ripe project.  They describe the facility and the community as the best opportunity they've seen.  I wish them luck.  The west coast will need more product and I know the bay area is very interested in waste stream biodiesel.

Check out the complete article here.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

My Opinion of New Gas Taxes for the Sake of New Taxes

Wired Magazine (as well as many others) are advocating for a motor fuel tax increase. Or in Wired's words:

We've already shown we can live with gas at $4 a gallon (less than half what some European countries saw during the price spikes last summer) without inviting the apocalypse. That pretty much shoots down the argument that people won't stand for higher gas prices. And, as Time magazine notes, an increase in the gas tax could be offset by a cut in the payroll tax, which has a far greater impact on our pocketbooks, anyway.

This argument (because we can afford it) is a horrible way to build a consensus around energy. Often referred to as an Apollo Project like grand marshaling of effort. That is what the US and world need now. A grand wide-ranging effort.

This argument though is unconvincing to me. In fact its the height of ivory tower belligerence in my opinion. As someone who has taken the bad debts of bankrupt businesses recently unable to cover the cash flow needs of high prices I differ about how "we can live with gas at $4" compared to those disengaged with the actual customers of this product. Its hard to justify a tax simply to improve the policy goals of our government in conflict with the actual cost of operating effect of small business and the low rungs of our economy.

Seeing the impact of $4 a gallon heating oil to my elderly customers it is painful. It hurts emotionally and stuns me reconciling my own belief in the free-market with a desperate want of an affordable option for these customers impacted. When you need to talk to trucking companies and other industrial diesel users with decades of good credit history now struggling to pay for the fuel cost of operating requires a tough choice on my end is also equally as hard.

High energy prices is dangerous and hard. It is not something we can live with. Especially if its just to tax and then spend. We need an actual policy. One that doesn't solely raise prices but allocates the incentive for a diverse, domestic, and sustainable portfolio of energy.

Our energy shouldn't be that high prices are okay. Our policy should be as inexpensive as possible with an ever improving requirement for reducing impact. I have no doubt that we can have extreme-low-impact energy at a cost far below $4 a gallon. All it takes is more competition and improved technology.

To move our energy infrastructure forward is not the job of a gas tax. A Btu tax maybe. A CO2 tax probably. Those would allow the market to support long range innovation and more importantly a wider/smarter grid to allow for more players. These would work if the money was directly placed in off-setting the Federal tax deductions for utility and refiners investing in new capital and infrastructure.  Regardless of what tax though it needs to be evenly distributed on those sources of energy that come from outside North America and bolster an incentive for new locally produced energy.  

A gas tax to rebuild infrastructure for gasoline users. That I agree with if it is connected (users of roads paying for improved roads is good policy). The real catch is that legislators (be they Federal or State) don't connect a $1 or revenue with a $1 of infrastructure.  Even when mandated usually the added revenue gets sucked up by the Administration of departments long before it sees the laying of asphalt or raising of bridges.  

Don't fall for those knee-jerk taxation lovers looking for an angle for any more revenue to dole out. Ready, shoot, aim with the US tax code will not move us forward.  Likely only backward. Without a clear results oriented policy taxes rarely accomplish anything but more special interest involvement restricting further progress.