>>
home

Latest Post

How Best to Change (Back) the Climate

Dr. G. Keep, July 2018

87% of our CO2 emissions are from burning fossil fuels. The knee-jerk reaction is to switch
to solar power, or renewable fuels (but these are just solar power with a biological delivery
mechanism). Unfortunately, our CO2 creation is 2-3x what all the plant and marine life on
Earth is currently trapping, so solar energy, while it is very important, will not be able to
produce as much energy as we are using, by that same factor of 2-3x.
Mass transit is an obvious way to cut down on gasoline use, but the big-business-project
approach always attracts political baggage like happened with the railroads. Airplanes
succeeded where dirigibles failed, for this same reason. Electric and hybrid cars (smaller
business) seem to be avoiding this problem, but you still have to capture and deliver the
energy.

Obviously everything that can be done to foster the development of solar panel industry in
this country (like is done in other countries) should be pursued. Yet the government has
actually put the brakes on the solar industry (perhaps because it is small-business rather
than big-business). This is a political problem that needs to be tackled at the government-
in-your-pocket level – the petroleum and coal industries already have 4 black eyes between
them. The only solution is at the voting booth. Note the $50M grant we supposedly got
subcontracted on in 2013 was 90% focused on fostering solar energy. I’m sure the
taxpayers paid for it, but apparently graft and corruption caused the money to never show
up.

Along similar lines, the drive to replace gasoline with biodiesel for liquid fuels (practical
convenient delivery) for vehicles should be pushed. Currently, there are subsidies for both
kinds of energy but the biodiesel subsidy is in the form of a “quota” of tax credits that the
petroleum producers must buy from the biodiesel producers. This gives them an incentive
to fight back, and they have a tool in the fact that their purchase of tax credits is a 2-year
running average. They conspire together to buy only on even-numbered years, and the
fledgling biodiesel companies starve and die in the odd numbered years. This holds down
the capacity estimates on which the quotas are based. Also, the subsidies are often granted
RETROACTIVELY – which does no good to a business trying to get funding for a business
investment, or after they have gone out of business. My involvement in the biodiesel
industry was relatively short for this reason. It does not help that a few corrupt biodiesel
producers commit fraud in claiming subsidies for biodiesel that they did not actually
produce. The rules on subsidies need to be re-written, and this has to be tackled at the
legislative-initiative level.

Biodiesel was originally based on soybean oil, but that now costs just as much as the
biodiesel produced. There is a major need to qualify cheaper sources of raw oil. The
program to get corn producers to grow penny-cress off-season in their fields shows great
promise, and needs to be pushed forward. I was involved with a project to convert brown
grease from municipal sewer traps into a suitable raw material for biodiesel (getting the
sulfur out is the key). The city of Detroit was going to use this brown grease from their
own sewers to run their own trucks. I was successful at lab scale, but our financing fell
through (I was stiffed for $20K that I was promised for that work), the next set of people
who could have best used this were alleged to be committing tax credit fraud before their
plant mysteriously burned down, and the next competitor in line was integrated up the
vegetable-oil line (the only way to survive given the alternate-year subsidy situation). So
there is no established financial support to innovate in this industry, and my technology
sits idle. How is an investor to have confidence to invest in an industry that is so shaped
and defined by the corruption around it?

A huge producer of CO2 is the paper-mill burning of lignin, which is the cell walls of wood
left over from making cellulose fiber for paper. They claim they are burning $350 BILLION
pounds of lignin annually to make energy, but the energy produced is barely enough to dry
out the wet lignin. I believe this one source is about 1/1000 of the CO2 produced from all
sources. They do this because otherwise they would have to call it a waste product and
treat it like hazardous industrial waste. There are a few limited uses for lignin, but only a
tiny fraction escapes the fate of turning into CO2. I developed a technology to convert
lignin into a reversible thermoplastic so it could be shaped into durable goods, if only as a
replacement for asphalt (to be fair, this was lab scale, 10 pounds or so, so needs lots of
development). I have tried to sell this to the paper industry but they wouldn’t touch it
because to do so, they would have to admit they have a problem. Currently this source of
CO2 emission is not on the public’s radar screen. This could be changed by a media
campaign giving the paper industry a black eye, and forcing them to do something with the
lignin that does not harm the environment (though of course blackmail is not the way to
become their friend and sell them your solution).

Another technology we developed and filed a patent on was a process that would
revolutionize the algae industry and change the political dynamics between the petroleum
and biodiesel producers. Our process turns algae farming from a “harvest-the-crop”
mentality into a “dairy-farming” process, no longer dependent on the slow rate of growth of
the algae. The food source is 35 billion pounds of hemicellulose in the paper mill waste
stream (note the complimentary use of the lignin part elsewhere) or other sugar wastes
from society. Surprisingly, no light is used, so there is no competition for arable land – this
can be done inside or underground. Best of all, the oil produced is the same as that which
seeded our ancient petroleum deposits, so it is a feedstock to a petroleum refinery. We
become suppliers to, not competitors to, the petroleum industry. This process could
produce 2% of the USA’s liquid fuel needs. Yet, we were passed over for government
funding in favor of established Universities. Part of the problem is that algae has been
over-sold to investors in the past and again, no one knows who to trust. This would require
some serious button-holing to find financing for this to move forward.

A very much personal way to help climate change is to move down the food chain. Beef
production takes so much land, grain, water, etc. and produces methane, another
greenhouse gas. Goats, sheep, and pigs have a smaller impact. Chickens are a still better
source of protein for the impact they have. Eggs are the animal protein with the lowest
impact. Whether to go totally vegan is a debate on may levels, but the reduced
environmental impact of that is nothing compared to our other appetites (transportation,
heating, etc.). The “grown local” food movement has a big plus in reduced transportation
costs.

“Paper or Plastic” was a big debate that was misplaced. The environmental impact actually
closely matches the industrial cost of making and shipping the bags so in one sense the
market is a good decider. Now, plastic bags are being banned because of the litter, and
ocean disposal, not the production costs.

Ultimately, any issue regarding the environment comes down to the three R’s “Reduce,
Reuse, Recycle”. Because our use outstrips the planet’s capacity to deal with it by 2-3x, we
must reduce our energy consumption (if not per capita, then Malthus will find a less
pleasant way). Reuse and recycle are lesser ways to reduce, but still valid.

With this in mind, the global picture is such that the relatively small US population is
consuming an unsustainable level of energy. The Chinese population is following in our
footsteps to industrialize, and the Indian population is right behind them, with Africa to
follow. On a global level, it does not matter what the Americans do, unless they can teach
the lessons of their mistakes to the rising populations. If the Chinese commit all our
mistakes at 10x the size, the planet is doomed. The single biggest thing we as a nation can
do is foster international cooperation to find a better path than the one we took.

Our global approach ought to be to start with the biggest problem and work down (much as
the fire-prevention industry has systematically reduced the risk of catastrophic fires step
by step). One resource among many to use that ranks these is
https://whatsyourimpact.org/greenhouse-gases/carbon-dioxide-emissions.

Personally, I am in despair over how every single green initiative I have been involved with
has been submarined by corruption of one form or another. If human greed cannot be
checked, there is no hope that science and technology will ever be used to stem the tide.
The best path forward that I see now is to become a writer to raise society’s consciousness
about these issues. I can only repeat the advice other-worldly advise of ET: “Be Good!”

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 175 other followers