Thursday, March 06, 2008

Global Warming Thursday: Reading material

It's been a sick-day chez Mouse. We've been letting Scooter watch endless DVDs and pumping him full of orange juice. Trillian and I have been slugging decaf and tea and juice. But I have had the chance to read around a bit. So here are three articles on the topic of the environment. I apologize that all of them are from sites that require registration, but I'll try to give you the gist of what they say.

The first article is actually something I read a couple weeks ago: "Scientists Would Turn Greenhouse Gas Into Gasoline" from the NY Times. Some scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory (from the division of, I'm sure, "Hey look, we do something other than split atoms"--although there is mention here of using nuclear power for this project on the large scale) are developing a process for removing carbon dioxide from the air and turning it back into gasoline:
The idea is simple. Air would be blown over a liquid solution of potassium carbonate, which would absorb the carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide would then be extracted and subjected to chemical reactions that would turn it into fuel: methanol, gasoline or jet fuel.
The big catch right now is cost. (Isn't it always.) All of the technology already exists to develop a plant for the process, but gas would need to hit $4.60 per gallon to make the process cost-effective. With some further developments of the technology, however, that price may drop to $3.40 per gallon. I don't know about the rest of you, but gas prices here have been steadily climbing from the 3-dollar mark in the past couple weeks. It certainly wouldn't take much for us to hit that lower level!

There are several things I find encouraging about this process. It starts from a realistic point: we will not be getting rid of gas-powered vehicles anytime soon. As interesting as I find hybrid and hydrogen technology, they alone will not solve the problem, at least not in the immediate future. (As the article points out, if hydrogen is produced by a coal-powered plant, the production of the fuel will create large amounts of carbon; in our particular setting, a hybrid vehicle won't run on the electric engine enough to get significantly better mileage or lower emissions than the car we already drive.) This also would make gasoline a somewhat renewable resource--however much is used can be recovered and used again.

Trillian drew my attention to the second article, also in the Times: "Turning Glare Into Watts." There has been growth in the use of solar thermal plants in the Southwest US. Instead of the more customary photovoltaic cells, these plants make use of mirrors to focus heat on a fluid that then produces steam that turns a turbine to produce electricity. This is not a new approach, but it has garnered new interest as other energy prices have risen. Unsurprisingly, the Southwest, with its desert and relatively sparse population in the hottest of places, has been chosen as a location for new plants. They produce a smaller amount of energy than more standard power plants, but they take less time to build and get online. The downsides are that they tend to be rather isolated, meaning that the infrastructure does not usually exist for hooking them into grids and requiring the addition of lots of lines, and they can affect the deserts' biodiversity.

Solar thermal energy cannot replace photovoltaic cells entirely; in particular, it seems unlikely that it can be adapted efficiently to house-size. But I did find myself thinking as I read this, just imagine houses with photovoltaic ranges and otherwise energy-efficient with the rest of their energy supplemented by these sorts of power plants.

The third article is less scientific, but gets at something I've certainly been pondering, even if I've only written about it once or twice. The Washington Post's "Greed in the Name of Green" looks at how the green label is being used to increase consumption, saying about "the new green consumer":
And let us never consider the other organic option -- not buying -- because the new green consumer wants to consume, to be more celadon than emerald, in the right color family but muted, without all the hand-me-down baby clothes and out-of-date carpet.
As we settle into our house, I've been thinking a lot about this. Moving stirs up the desire to get new things that are "just perfect" for our new space. And while we haven't been entirely virtuous--witness the two recliners we bought this year, we have been trying very hard to repurpose what we already have, thinking long and hard before making purchases.

I do think there is a place for green products. Let's face it, the sheets we've had for many years now will eventually wear thin, our current dining room table is only a short-term borrowing from the in-laws, we would like a comfortable sofa-bed for the people who have expressed a desire to visit. And when we make such purchases, we will be taking into consideration their materials and the manufacturing processes used to make them, throwing in some thought for how far they've had to travel and if particular items can be purchased used while still maintaining desired quality.

I was struck by one quote in particular:
Really going green, Hawken says, "means having less. It does mean less. Everyone is saying, 'You don't have to change your lifestyle.' Well, yes, actually, you do."
I don't think this has to be negative. The biggest problem is that it requires pushing against prevailing messages of consumption. Yet, I have found that slowing down on purchases, stepping back and asking myself why I want something and whether I don't already have something that can serve the same purpose, is really quite satisfying. I'm not entirely sure how this might come to replace the current zeitgeist, and that's something I could let myself get pessimistic about, but at the moment I prefer to believe that it's not an impossibility.


Lisa b said...

yes, we all do have to change our lifestyle. It is an interesting point of contention between those who think we have to be positive to get people to buy in and those who think we have to be real.

That CO2 project reminds me of one that suggested dumping iron into the oceans to increase primary productivity. Might be a great idea but messing with the earth on that type of scale always makes me nervous.

Sandra said...

It's hard not to get pessimistic about it.

Sorry about the sick bugs chez mouse!