September 23, 2008

Comments on Friedman's "Hot, Flat, and Crowded"

Thomas Friedman has a terrific platform from which to interview energy experts globally, write opinion pieces that are distributed through the New York Times, and participate in the production of cable television documentaries. Occasionally he pumps out a book that coalesces all of his research and synthesizes his prescriptions for solving the energy, environment, and global warming challenges that face us.

His The World is Flat book documented the changes in demographics and economic parity that will define the global rise of the middle class. Wonderful on the face of it, the consequences of this metamorphosis could challenge America's position and security as the leading consumer nation in the world - leading to competition for resources with developed and currently under-developed countries worldwide.

Since the release of that book (in 2005) the stakes have risen with an acceleration of demand for fossil energy, heightened concern about the global warming impacts of human behavior, and the sharp spike in gas prices - not to mention the crisis on Wall Street.

This book Hot, Flat, and Crowded takes on a broader perspective and a sharper call to action. The broader perspective intends to address the dual-headed energy and environment challenge with the clean tech alternatives he particularly espouses - solar, wind, and energy efficiency. His call to action compares the energy lethargy of the fractious U.S. policymaking machine with the frantic and command structured action of the Peoples Republic of China.

My primary reservation about the book is that it has a typically urban perspective on the problems without giving rural world economies (particularly in developed countries) their due. Friedman believes that ethanol subsidies are bad policy - in spite of the fact that the ethanol producers of America reflect the most immediate example of entrepreneurism contributing and innovating new solutions. He also doesn't distinguish between corn ethanol and cellulosic regarding the value of subsidies.

And then he decries policymakers for not committing to long-term guarantees like the production tax credit for solar and wind. What's bad for the goose is bad for the gander. Pulling the ethanol subsidies out from under any kind of ethanol developments would set a bad precedent impacting investor confidence.

Chapter 18

That being said, Friedman's website allows readers to contribute to the next edition of the book! A project he calls "Chapter 18" seeks reader input:

Hot, Flat, and Crowded has seventeen chapters. What's Chapter 18? Chapter 18 will be a completely new chapter that I’ll add to the next edition of the book: Version 2.0. In it I hope to include the best ideas and proposals sent in from readers: ideas about clean energy, energy efficiency, and conservation; about petropolitics and nation-building in America; about how we can help take the lead in the renewal of our country and the Earth alike by going Code Green. I am eager for your suggestions — please post them here.

So I sent in my two cents worth and I suggest you do the same. Here's what I wrote:

Loved your new book - I recommend that all of my colleagues read it.

My only disappointment is that you almost completely left out discussion of biomass conversion technologies (CTs) - the single biggest source of renewable power in the U.S. today (more than hydroelectric, solar, wind, and geothermal combined).

Wind and solar are carbon neutral. Plants are carbon negative and their biomass can be converted to directly replace fossil liquids for fuels and fossil solids for baseload power.

Wind and solar will not revive the decentralized rural economies of the world the way that bioenergy will (reference 25x'25 and ACORE's Biomass Coordinating Council).

I have come to the opinion that the key to sustainably sourcing biomass for CTs is finding waste streams and disaster debris that has a social cost attached to it (and very often a tipping fee or government incentive to remove it). This biowaste needs to be cleaned up before it decays into methane, CO2, and other GHGs. I include in these waste streams (1) wildfire salvage wood in CA, (2) hurricane debris and forest knockdown in the Gulf states, (3) mountain pine beetle infested wood in British Columbia and Colorado, and (4) unrecycled MSW at all the major cities. These problem accumulations of biomass are massive and will get much worse with "global weirding."

California's AB32 - the Global Warming Solutions Act - has entrusted its Air Resources Board to devise and execute solutions to reduce GHG emissions in California. CARB has fashioned a Scoping Plan and sought comments from Californians at large. I have written an article with links to the three comments I made based on my research and travels and invite you to check them out.

One comment advocates reducing significant amounts of GHG by thinning forests to preempt unprecedented "megafires", salvage carbon laden tree remains for conversion, and replant forests to sequester CO2 anew. You should interview Sen. Feinstein about the pitifully low amount of forest management work that has been accomplished since the passage of her Healthy Forest Initiative Act of 2003. Only 77,000 acres have been treated out of 20 million acres funded. This institutional lethargy is largely because there is no forest products industry left in those forests to buy the wood which would fund the programs. (BIOstock Blog)

Another comment focuses on diverting unrecyclable wastes (40 million tons/year in CA alone) from landfills by instead using CTs to produce biopower and biofuels at the Municipal Sorting Facilities (as L.A. is planning to do with its RENEW L.A. plan). (BIOwaste Blog)

My third comment is titled Challenge the Status Quo which aligns with your BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere, Not Anytime) lament. Too much current policymaking and regulations handicap initiative for action. For instance, thermochemical CTs are hogtied with the same EIA and LCA impediments as landfills (which means that it takes 5 to 10 years to permit them). As a consequence, the status quo wins.

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