But Ethanol can be AN answer

Kristen posted a bit about why ethanol isn’t the answer (and Larry added a bit). Silly me, I wrote a longwinded answer in comments which wasn’t as longwinded as it should have been (grin). Fortunately, it got deleted when Larry tried to edit, which gives me the excuse to get REALLY longwinded on my own blog.  Go get your no-doze, I’m going to pontificate some.

Maybe it’s because I’m older, maybe it’s because I spent too many years in low-population and low-income areas, but I find myself wincing when I hear how we all need to “just walk” and “just…”.  The simple thing that gets forgotten is:  No solution is universal.  Or to be more crass, “For every human problem there is a solution that is obvious, simple, and wrong.”

Now, I do think we’re about to go through some major changes.  And I think that people should start battening down the hatches.  Some of Kristin’s suggestions are outstanding for that.  Some, however, make assumptions that are just a tiny bit unachievable for large proportions of the population.

Take, for example, her solar water heater.  A great idea…  Unless you rent.  Or live in a densely populated urban location.  But if you’re not in that area, it’s great.

Walk?  Again, great.  Unless you’re elderly or handicapped and the nearest grocery is 1.2 miles away.  (I’m not handicapped or elderly.  I am, however, 1.2 miles to the closest grocery – the one with the worst prices and product of those within a 5 mile radius.)

And walking to the grocery works if your circumstances allow you to bring home food on an almost daily basis – or supplement what you’re growing.  However, there’s an almost equally effective alternative – change your grocery pattern to once a month.  And carpool that, too.  Now distance matters but far less than it did.  (By the way, I expect someday soon to start seeing either groceries offering delivery or independent contractors doing the shopping and delivery from lists — a third model.)

The point is that not all solutions are valid – or invalid – for everyone.

See, ethanol works for the Brazilians.  And it’ll probably continue to work for a while, even with all the problems the Rolling Stone article Kristin links to mentions.  It’s similar to what Larry adds to the post — biodiesel works for some people for a while, but it’s not going to work for everyone and it’s not going to work for even some of the people all of the time.

I think it amusing, and rather ironic, that the mantra of many hippy communes of many decades ago is becoming a mainstream mantra for those in preparation: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.  It’s good advice – always was.  It’s just… “woah – flashbacks, man…”

I have my own suggestions I make to most people who ask.  The first one – that comes close to being available for everyone – is replace incandescent bulbs with compact florescents.   Their lifespan alone makes them cheaper in the long run.  The direct and indirect energy savings… indirect?  They get hot.  With them gone, cooling the residence is a little easier.  Same light (lumens), less energy per lumen, and less waste energy in the form of heat.  Winner.  (Except in the winter, when that extra heat can actually be kind of nice…)

The thermostat always gets comments from folk, but I try not to make people jump straight to “68 in the winter, 72 in the summer.”  Instead, I just suggest they change their threshhold by 2 degrees.  If they’re doing 66 in the summer, I ask them to change to 68.  Yes, higher would be better for them and for the rest of us, but I’ve learned that small and simple steps get taken, while big ones that “hurt” don’t.

Now, I’ve come to love on larger step I’ve done, but it only works for homeowners – and not all of them.  I put in a solar-powered attic fan.   No, not one of those that pulls air from the house to the attic — that’s a BAD idea.  No, this merely pushes air out one gable/vent.  The mild vacuum pulls air in from the other side (as well as the soffet vents).  The cooler air entering has reduced the peak temperature in my attic by 30 degrees F this summer, which is in turn a lot less heat being absorbed and then radiated from my ceiling, which means less cooling is needed in the house.  (oh – in the interests of stopping some complaints up front, my daytime thermostat setting in the summer is 84 degrees.)

OK, so I’ve meandered a ways in responding to a good post.  Let me jump sideways with some final remarks before I close.

Our lifestyle in ten years will not be the same as today’s lifestyle.  We’ll use rather less oil — the change in demand will be due to changes in both mannerisms and equipment that are more efficient in that regard.  But oil won’t have gone away – and in fact the reduction in demand will keep us from seeing oil in the multiple hundreds of dollars per barrel (probably).  What we’re in today is just past the early adopter stages.  There is beginning to be common thought that says we need alternatives – it’s not just the fringes demanding it anymore.  But in a decade we will not have made a radical shift.  There’s too much inertial, and too much investment with insufficient ability to change that far that fast — unless, of course, we have to.

I admire K and L for their action.  I cannot emulate them – I haven’t got the sort of job that will allow me to move and buy a large plot of land.  (My job in their neck of the woods would pay me half what I get, and my lcoal land and house prices are less than what it is in that area of Colorado.)  The time may come when I have to do this, but it’s not now.  And I suspect that by the time it might have come enough other things will have occurred in parallel to change the entire equation.

For some people, at least some of the time, ethanol is an answer.

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5 thoughts on “But Ethanol can be AN answer

  1. You can choose not to walk. The elderly can choose not to live with their children.

    Here is the deal, you can solve the problem or the problem will be solved for you. If you don’t choose to deal with the issue, it WILL be solved for you. Physics doesn’t really care if the elderly die.

    Or we can choose that EVERYONE who can walk, does. We can decide that we will zone land such that suburbs are devalued and we move into the city centers (except for the people growing food)

    Or we can wait till physics decides for us and lots die.

    Anyway, Sugar Ethanol can work, but it won’t solve our liquid fuel problem. Even at 8:1 energy we can’t keep living 50 miles from where we work. The Rolling Stone article was anti-corn Ethanol. Anyone who is pro Corn Ethanol should instantly go on your “too stupid to vote for” list.

  2. Your absolutism is in error. Consider, ‘We can decide that we will zone land such that suburbs are devalued and we move into the city centers[.]’ Or, we can see small businesses (groceries, clothiers, etc) start up in the suburbs, making them small communities instead of bedroom support for urban complexes. Which is more likely to happen — forcing everyone to spend the money to move to urban centers, or giving small businesses the opportunity to succeed? (hint: http://kristinandlarry.blogspot.com/2007/06/economic-systems.html )

    Note that this also solves the ‘long walk’ problem.

    I will point out that a major reason mega-stores are successful is cheap and plentiful energy. A WalMart that serves everyone in a 15 mile radius succeeds because it’s “cheap” to go there to get the lower prices. Although the ‘go one place for many needs’ issue exists as well.

    I’m sorry, but insisting “this is the only answer” suggests you’ve not considered all circumstances. “This is a good answer” works. “This is the best answer” makes me twitch when done without qualifiers (“based on what we know now” or “for most circumstances” being examples), but can still work. But we just don’t do binary very well – – we’re too complex for “This or Die” to be the only choices for anything more than a minute into the future. Well, maybe an hour. Sometimes.

    As to the sugar ethanol – that’s my example. “for some circumstances”. If Brazil grows as anticipated, sugar ethanol won’t work for them in about two decades – not as a sole solution anyway. But as a temporary solution, in Brazil, ethanol is an answer. Absolutism requires that we know everything and that it will never change.

    I still ridicule the patent officer who quit because everything that could be invented HAD been invented.

  3. Look Kirk,

    Bitch about urban form and changing the infrastructure of America all you want. Personally I don’t care.

    Ethanol will and cannot save our happy motoring lifestyle. Either we fix the problems by choice or thermodynamics picks for us.

    1 unit of energy in for 1.2 units of energy out is NOT going to do anything but make large agribusiness rich.

    Corn Ethanol is a SCAM.

  4. blink

    I’m not arguing about corn ethanol. You’re picking a fight in a vacuum – or thinking I’m saying something I AM.. NOT.. SAYING.

    As to changing the infrastructure – that’s what we’re both saying will happen. However, you say it’s “got to be” one way only. I’m saying there are multiple avenues.

    Frankly, I agree the motoring lifestyle will change. Unlike you appear to believe, I think it’ll happen over two decades, and that the legacy will continue for a couple of generations.

    You’ve convinced me – mostly – about corn ethanol. I say mostly. Efficiency loss is a given (Carnot rules), but this is potentially even worse. That said, I will point out that we may be willing to pay “immobile” energy costs to obtain “mobile” energy stores. They won’t be CHEAP energy stores, but the price for mobility may be ACCEPTABLE.
    hmmm. I think this deserves a longer post – feel free to jump to that one.

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